Ruth’s Testimony on the Master Facilities Plan

June 5, 2019. Good morning.  I am Ruth Wattenberg, Ward 3 Member of the DC State Board of Education.  

         As you know, the MFP projects more than an additional 2500 students in the W3-Wilson feeder schools by 2027, and about 1200 in just 4 or 5 years.  As of 2 years ago, 8 schools of the 15 in the feeder pattern already exceeded permanent capacity, and all 15 are expected to grow through 2025. No boundary change solves this, as the overcrowding projections extends well beyond the feeder system, into every adjacent ward, wards 1, 2, and 4. 

         Under any circumstance, this crisis requires creative thinking; no single solution will solve it. Among the ideas included in the report of the Community Working Group, convened by DCPS and including the principal and a parent from each Wilson feeder school, the chair of the W3/Wilson Education Network, myself and Mary Cheh’s office’s:  finding ways to use the unused part of Ellington, which only uses half of its space at any given time; considering a Wilson high school campus at UDC where juniors and seniors could take college classes for credit; allowing and encouraging DCPS schools to lease space in commercial buildings, much as charters do; requiring new developments to pay towards the schools that their residents will need, as is the practice in other jurisdictions.

         It will require creativity, effort, multiple ideas, and planning—starting yesterday—to accommodate the expected wave of students.

         But no solution is imaginable that doesn’t begin with making use of the only unused DCPS property in or nearby: the Old Hardy school, currently under lease to the Lab School, which can immediately accommodate 200-plus students and, with renovations, similar to those of other DCPS schools, 400 or more students.  If Old Hardy handles 450 students, the overcrowding problem is immediately nearly ¼ less than it was—and we can focus our thinking on addressing the other ¾.  To allow this school to leave DCPS hands for 50 some years would be the height of irresponsibility, in so many ways. It would require DC to spend more money on new schools when scarce dollars are needed elsewhere.  It would require that much more attention from our leaders when that attention could be devoted to addressing the other 3/4 of the problem; it would likely lead to even greater delays in accommodating the coming wave of students.

         There should be no thought, no possibility, of giving away Old Hardy—unless and until there is a comprehensive report and plan showing how the overcrowding in the Wilson feeder pattern will be addressed.

                  Yet, the Mayor has called for the Old Hardy school to be leased out for up to the next 50 years.  The proposal is beyond fathoming. It is so far removed from what’s required and responsible.  It is yet another example of a terrible process for determining how DCPS buildings will be used.

         One reason given for leasing it out is that the tenant would be the Lab School, a much appreciated resource in DC, for the support it gives its students who have learning disabilities. I love what the Lab School does.  But, at the Old Hardy site, there are fewer than 30 DC students. That’s it. Other students are from Md and Va.  Other students, including from DC, are at its other campus.  

There are things that the city can and should do for beloved community institutions. But, its wrong to suggest that the city owes a school building to a private school serving 30-some students, regardless of its good purpose and service, when the city needs that building to meet the basic needs of its public school children. If the city feels so appreciative of Lab, the way to help Lab is not to string it along, as it has these past years. It should use its connections to help Lab find an appropriate space for relocation.  Lab still has 4 years on its current lease. No child in the school now will actually be relocated.  Now is the time for everyone of good will to help Lab find another location so that it will have an easy, healthy transition.  And the school can welcome DCPS students in 2023, when the area’s schools will be overflowing even more than they are.

         But, as problems go, overcrowded schools is a good one, compared to others.  And here’s where I want to speak about the rest of the city. I visit schools across the city and I talk to families, teachers, and community leaders across the city.

         Our overcrowded schools in Ward 3 show that given a choice, most parents–most of the time, for most of their kids–prefer a strong neighborhood school.  That reality is backed up by polling: by 63-32, parents prefer improving all of our neighborhood schools to increasing the options for opting out of that system. (See “Shopping for Public Schools in the District of Columbia,” published by the Office of the DC Auditor. 

Charters offer wonderful variety and can be needed laboratories of innovation.  Their presence means our education system offers a variety of education options that a single neighborhood system can’t and won’t.  They leaven our system.  A strong charter sector is healthy and desirable. As do DCPS magnets, they create options for more diverse schools that pull students from every ward,

We need an MFP that makes both of these goals possible—a strong neighborhood system in EVERY neighborhood AND a rich leavening of charters.  

We can do that and truly be the envy of other cities.  But, we can’t do it as we are doing it now.  

As it stands, an unlimited number of new schools can open.  The inevitable result is too many seats, too many schools.  For our neighborhood DCPS schools, it often means lower enrollments, leading to smaller budgets, then program reductions, leading to lower budgets, and so on, putting these schools into a downward death spiral.  Chacellor Ferebee has called these schools “unsustainable.” 

So, as it stands now, our neighborhood schools are left to cycle into unsustainable states, as new charters open up with no regard to their effect on the city’s broader education system.  Indeed, in the last budget period, 20-some DCPS schools had substantial 5%+ cuts, typically propelled by enrollment cuts.  If there is not intensive intervention, many of them will become unsustainable, and presumably closed. I hope the Council will target additional funding to these schools and insist that interventions be made. 

In effect, that is the reality of our current plan: open more charters, close neighborhood schools.

There are claims that the schools losing enrollment and funding are low quality—that they shouldclose and be replaced by high-quality schools.  Would that it were so easy!!! First, our methods for measuring school quality largely don’t, especially at the high school level, for which arguably there’s barely a piece of the STAR rating that speaks to the school’s actual educational quality.  Second, improving schools, especially when a huge number of students enter at risk, is tough, hard, long-term work. As we know from recent closings, even well reputed charters can be unable to out-achieve neighborhood schools.  It takes hard, long-term work—with investment and strategy.  

The big cuts in Wards 7 and 8 shows that the moment, we have neither a strategy for these schools or are making the investment in these schools.

In the short run, I hope you will insist that DCPS invest in these schools that face great cuts. I urge you to insist on a plan that assures two healthy sectors, starting with a quality neighborhood school in every neighborhood.   I urge you to prevent the giving away of Hardy for up to 50 years, when the area desperately needs extra school space.

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