Integrity–Or, When DC Charters Lie About Real Estate (And Other Tales Of Public Dissing)

[Ed. Note: The following is a public comment submitted December 18 via email to the DC public charter school board concerning its new public comment process, which (per the charter board’s memo on it) was created to “improve the integrity of the public comment process.”]

Dear charter board members,

My name is Valerie Jablow, and I am commenting as a DC taxpayer on your new public comment policy in general and as it relates to two items on the agenda for the December 19 board meeting—as well as to other items from previous board meetings and possibly items on future board meetings. As this new comment policy is not on your agenda for the December 19 board meeting (though it was on the agenda for the November board meeting), I am unclear how, and where, this comment will be posted per your new comment policy (not to mention that the new policy itself does not appear to have been posted for official public comment on your website).

Please let me explain.

Per the board memo on the new comment policy, the charter board will apparently distinguish “between testimony that relates to an item on the agenda of the current board meeting and testimony that is not related to any agenda items.” The former will apparently be filed with board materials for that meeting, while the latter will not.

So:

Is my written testimony here going to be posted under “general public comments,” as the new policy directs for public comments about items not specifically on a board meeting’s agenda?

Or, alternatively, will my testimony here be contained in this month’s board meeting materials, as it relates to two items on the agenda for the December board meeting (even though the public comment period for one of the items closed last month)?

And why is there no solicitation of public comment on this new policy, which directly affects the public?

The confusion doesn’t end there, unfortunately:

As far as I know, there was no prior policy that prohibited public comment on items not on a meeting agenda—even though the new public comment policy page specifically says (boldface mine) that “what is new is that DC PCSB will now allow space for the public to testify on topics that are not on the board meeting agenda.” This new wording begs the question of what happened to prior public testimony on “topics that are not on the board meeting agenda.” Was it discarded? Were members of the public turned away from meetings if they said they wished to testify about topics not on the agenda?

Also, while one can submit written comments by email (as I am doing now), the new comment web page allows only 2000 characters of written comments to be submitted via its online form—which means that if I were using that form, I would be forced to stop here.

Which for all I know may be the point, as the new public comment policy allows only for a total of 35 minutes of live public testimony at each board meeting. Of that time, 25 minutes are allotted for items on the agenda and 10 minutes for items not on the agenda.

As with not recalling any prior prohibition on subject matter that the public could comment on, I also don’t recall any such total time limits on public comments before. In fact, over years I have listened to a fair number of charter board monthly meetings, and I do not recall any where members of the public rushed to be heard such that the meeting was overtaken by public comment.

All of this suggests that this new policy is solving for something that doesn’t actually exist–or remains unexplained. The board memo on the new policy says that it is being done to “improve the integrity of the public comment process.”

So let us talk about integrity for a moment:

What happens when there are more people to testify in person than the new time limits permit? Will you simply cut the mike and tell them to submit written testimony? If so, when and how will that be messaged: at the meeting sign up? Or when they are in the (actual or virtual) room?

Sadly, if the mike is cut because of time limits and waiting members of the public are forced to submit written testimony instead of testifying live, that testimony will (per your rules!) be too late to be included in the materials for that board meeting because it needs to be submitted the day before—thus setting up a weird second-tier status of public comment. That is,

Those members of the public who get unlucky in their timing through no fault of their own (too many people before them by minute 35!) won’t have their comments listed *at all* in association with a meeting that they wished to provide testimony for and actually signed up for!

And what of the people who show up to your meeting and wish to speak but did not sign up ahead of time to speak? Are they simply to be ignored (which is admittedly convenient for both shorter meetings and avoiding messy topics)?

These are not idle questions—though they do speak to integrity (or lack thereof).

At the September board meeting, I was the only member of the public making a public comment. But I was not the only member of the public who wanted to comment! One person thought she had signed up to testify—and realized once at the virtual meeting that she had in fact only registered to see the meeting—not to testify. That is, once she was at the meeting (virtually), there was no way for her to be recognized to speak as a member of the public.

Then, when asked about my testimony by a charter board member, the head of Eagle Academy said he was surprised that Eagle parents were not testifying that evening–and said that they could not access the meeting.

The new public comment policy is silent on those issues.

While all of you are volunteers (and thus do not want to be kept at each monthly meeting for extraordinary lengths), I hope you can appreciate that 35 minutes a month to hear from the public live isn’t a lot of time—especially after the schools you oversee have been granted the extraordinary sum of $1 billion from those same taxpayers each year.

(BTW that works out to $83 million of DC taxpayer money for 35 minutes of live public comment per month—or about $2.3 million in DC taxpayer funds per each minute of live public comment allowed. As long as we’re talking about integrity, 35 minutes of live public voice a month for $83 million is a poor ROI for taxpayers—especially as their mikes may be cut at minute 36 through no fault of their own.)

Not coincidentally, integrity and public comment are related intimately to two agenda items for your December board meeting: CC Prep and Mundo Verde.

1. CC Prep: 

Community College Prep (CC Prep) applied in October with the charter board to have a new facility. The application—which I downloaded as a Word document from its public comment website—indicates that there was little, if any, notice to schools around their proposed location. (Here is a PDF of the same document.)

But in the materials for the November board meeting (when this application was discussed for the first time), a different version of CC Prep’s application, dated 10 days later, was posted. Oddly, the section of the application asking about reaching out to the community—specifically asking for “documentation of communications” with schools and neighbors; “when did the school inform the ANC representatives of its facility plans”; and a summary of “the external community’s concerns, if any”—was almost as unrevealing as that of the application’s first version. For instance, in response to the first two requests, CC Prep referenced an attached ANC response, which only stated support for the new facility’s construction, while in response to the last request, CC Prep said that “no concerns have been raised by either the internal or external audiences (staff, students community).”

In short, there was no outline in either application of when and how the school reached out to anyone in the community.

So:

Which version of this application can (or should) the public comment on?

And how does the public comment on the differences between these two documents—and the apparent lack of robust community outreach verified by the second (different) posted application?

That last question is seemingly impossible to answer, as by the time the second version was posted by the charter board in the materials for the November board meeting (close to the date of that board meeting), the only way the public would ever see it AND comment on it in time would be if they wandered into the board meeting materials before the meeting (but after the materials were posted!) and quickly signed up to testify or (provided it was at least a day before the meeting and no later) typed up written comment and submitted it via email then and there.

That is possible, of course—just not likely, which again for all I know may be the point.

As it is, my commentary here on CC Prep’s application is beyond the due date for comments on it (no more allowed!), which suggests that whatever I say here doesn’t count for your purposes–even though you will be voting on this same application at your December meeting tomorrow.

To restate this:

The applicant blew off your own application’s questions—and my pointing this out NOW is too late for you to consider before you vote tomorrow.

It is also too late, supposedly, for you to consider my observation that CC Prep apparently LIED about its ownership of the property in question.

That is, on both of its applications, CC Prep indicated (in response to the application question about when the school acquired the property) that the property was “purchased two years ago in anticipation of the need to provide a more convenient and permanent site.”

Yet, the board memo for this application (dated December 19 and posted only when the board materials were posted last week) states–in a footnote!–that in an email “CC Prep PCS said it “entered into a sales agreement [for the property located at 1806 Woodmont Place SE,] but [it has] not closed yet” on the purchase.”

That means months of misrepresentation to you and to everyone in the public—while you have a policy stating it’s too late for you to consider my pointing that out!

Presumably, it’s also too late for you to consider my questions on this misrepresentation, such as

–WHY did CC Prep misrepresent this ownership;

–WHO does this misrepresentation benefit; and

–HOW is this related to the reality that the school appears to not have done any extensive outreach to the surrounding community? Consider that if anyone in that community had a reason to oppose CC Prep’s plan, it would be much easier for CC Prep to say that its plan was already approved by the charter board before its sale was publicly noticed.

As a member of the public, I am not getting vibes of integrity from any of this. 

In fact, all of this suggests that you don’t really want public comment—just the appearance of it, and on your terms and time. 

On one level, I understand—you’re busy.

Except that it’s not your personal $1 billion that you’re overseeing. It’s mine. And that of hundreds of thousands of other people—all of whom cannot simply raise their hand at your meetings and ask to speak and now are limited to 35 minutes each month once we are recognized to speak!

How does any of that represent integrity?

Or is the point that integrity is how you define it—no matter how it works out for the rest of us? Are you not concerned that a charter school blew off *your own questions*? And apparently lied to you and all the rest of us?

2. Mundo Verde:

Integrity and public comment also figure into the facility application of Mundo Verde that you will discuss at your December meeting tomorrow. (Theoretically, my testimony about this will not be late, because I am submitting it today 12/18/22, per your posted policy, before 11:59 pm the day before your December meeting. For reference, here’s a screenshot of that policy today.)

Specifically, on October 31 the charter board posted the application of Mundo Verde for its new site. The next day—November 1—the DC Council voted to approve revenue bonds for Mundo Verde to acquire that site.

That timing was hardly coincidental:

The legislation for the revenue bonds was introduced in September and mentioned acquisition of the facility and property you will be voting on. At the October 5 council hearing for the revenue bonds, the ANC commissioner for that area testified at the 6 minute, 10 second mark that until that council hearing, the ANC had NO idea about the formal proposal of the school to purchase that property! The ANC was told only when the council member in charge of the committee contacted the ANC about the revenue bond hearing.

Yet Mundo Verde’s posted application for this facility (dated a few weeks after that October 5 council hearing and posted by you the day before the council vote***) states that “due to having a non-disclosure agreement pertaining to our real estate negotiations with the owner, we have only recently been able to begin a more public process.”

So Mundo Verde went to the mayor IN SEPTEMBER to ask for DC revenue bonds for acquisition of this property. The legislation was publicly posted IN SEPTEMBER.

Yet, the ANC commissioner was surprised to hear about this new location the next month because not everyone is checking DC’s legislative database for revenue bonds just to find out what is happening next door or down the street from their houses!

Incredibly, as a defense for keeping the entire neighborhood in the dark, Mundo Verde says it could not disclose its plans earlier than the application date (despite having actually disclosed those plans in PUBLIC LEGISLATION the prior month!) because of a non-disclosure agreement.

So: 

Telling neighbors in October was a violation of Mundo Verde’s nondisclosure agreement, but telling the council in a public filing and hearing the month before wasn’t.

As if that incredible bait and switch were not enough, it now appears that the school and you coordinated on the posting of its application for its facility, to ensure it was public before the council voted on the revenue bonds to purchase it. After all, what would it look like if the council approved revenue bonds for something that had never been publicly disclosed on your end?

All of which begs the question:

Given such efforts that directly benefit Mundo Verde (and ensured neighbors were among the last to be informed), what is the likelihood that you will say “no” to their application now?

As you may be aware, Ward 8 citizens tried—and failed—to have charter schools in DC declared for zoning purposes as private schools, so as to get at least a public hearing on charter locations and their necessity before their development.

The reason was to prevent exactly this kind of bait and switch that CC Prep and Mundo Verde are apparently engaging in.

Like so many others in DC (who have actually testified before you about such matters), those Ward 8 citizens did not want a charter school in their midst. And they repeatedly testified how they were harmed when a charter school was able to purchase property without any notification to the community and without any approval from you; build on that property without any permit to do so; and then get approvals after the fact for all of it.

And I can attest that those Ward 8 citizens are not alone in testifying about such egregious violations of the public interest by charter board processes that do not represent their interests, much less actual integrity. They and many others have repeatedly showed up to your monthly board meetings, to outline exactly how the public was purposefully excluded from any input on charter expansions, creations, and locations until after the fact.

All while the public is footing the bill.

In the case of Mundo Verde, while its revenue bonds are without fiscal obligation to DC, they are nonetheless traded on DC’s good name to allow Mundo Verde to have lower interest rates. Moreover, if Mundo Verde for whatever reason closes, DC taxpayers are on the hook for all of it—because those students and those assets are ultimately paid for with DC taxpayer money. (Yes, there are private funds involved—but the majority of Mundo Verde’s funding, like that of all of DC charters, comes from me and hundreds of thousands of other DC taxpayers.)

While you may regard this Mundo Verde matter as simply a little issue of timing, it’s not.

As with the other examples I have outlined here, it means that $1 BILLION of DC taxpayer money is annually spent without apparently a passing understanding by you of what is public voice—nor with any interest in sustaining OR listening to public voice, much less acting in its interests.

Instead, we the people get 35 minutes a month to tell you this—at 2 minutes per person.

Worse, in just these few examples I have outlined here, you have

 –acted against public interest by posting different materials about charter plans without public notice; permitted one to apparently blow off community engagement; and posted at a time advantageous to a school;

–failed to be explicit about an apparently purposeful misrepresentation that could be of material consequence to an entire community;

–approved plans after public opposition; and 

— promulgated a policy that relieves you of any concern about actually hearing from the public you supposedly serve (and who pays for all of it) except for a maximum of 35 minutes a month live.

That isn’t integrity—it’s shameful.

For the sake of yourselves and all DC citizens, please, now:

Look up the definition of integrity.

And democracy.

And consider my testimony here on your public comment policy and those two schools while you have some chance of salvaging decency in your actions before it’s too late. Thank you.

 ***The public posting of applications and related materials on the charter board website is highly variable—and what one might call democratically disturbing, especially as the public now is under severe constraints for the timing of their comments to the charter board.

For example, as I noted in my September testimony to you about Eagle Academy’s application to expand its grades, as of Sunday morning, September 18, 2022, PDFs of the following (which were posted on the PCSB website with meeting materials for the September 19, 2022 PCSB meeting) were created on the following dates, per adobe acrobat:

Eagle’s application: created on 6/7/22

PCSB notice of expansion: created on 8/3/22

PCSB board report: created on 9/8/22

As of today (December 18, 2022), the public comment website for the application notes that Eagle applied on June 7, but says the notice and application itself were uploaded by the charter board only on August 3.

Here is a screenshot (from today, December 18) of that page, for your reference:

Bottom line: The date range both on that public comment website as well as in the creation dates of the posted documents suggests an almost 2-month gap between the time Eagle Academy submitted its application for grade expansion and the time that public notification of it was made by PCSB.

Yet in the case of Mundo Verde, its application (dated 10/24/22 and updated 10/26/22) was posted literally the day before its revenue bonds approval on November 1. The creation date of the PDF posted (per adobe acrobat) is 10/31/22, the same day it was posted—so no delay at all. 

2 thoughts on “Integrity–Or, When DC Charters Lie About Real Estate (And Other Tales Of Public Dissing)

  1. Hi Valerie —

    Keep up the great work.

    Thank you for exposing the DC Public Charter School Board’s move to repress public comment. Those who are moving to de-platform the public and make their meetings a safe space for themselves are the same people who exhort us to rally behind them to “save our democracy.” While the national trend in school board elections is toward those who favor greater public and parent participation, these people are moving in the opposite direction. They expect us to let them get away with it because they are Democrats even though they are not democrats.

    — Jeff Schmidt

    jeffschmidt@alumni.uci.edu

    Like

  2. Thank you for laying this out so clearly. I hope this is a misunderstanding of the board about what there new timeline actually means instead of a disingenuous act – time will tell

    Like

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