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Overcrowding in D.C. Public Schools is a perennial problem. In Ward 3, in spite of substantial school modernization within the Woodrow Wilson High School feeder system in recent years, many schools are still using modular classrooms, common spaces, and even hallways to ease student overflow.

One of the last DCPS-owned properties in the area is at the center of the debate over how to solve the problem: The former Hardy Middle School, referred to as Old Hardy School, on Foxhall Road NW. Its tenant is the Lab School of Washington, a private nonprofit school for special needs children that it has leased from DCPS since 2008.

In March, Mayor Muriel Bowser asked the D.C. Council to approve a bill that would clear the way for a 25-year lease to the Lab School with one renewal option for an additional 25 years. Currently, the bill is in the Committee on Business and Economic Development chaired by Kenyan McDuffie. If McDuffie does not move the bill to a vote by the end of the year, the lease will expire in 2023. But that’s little comfort to the Lab School, which needs capital improvements that require  long-term planning. Nor is it satisfactory to Ward 3 parents who are upset about overcrowding at schools such as Francis Scott Key Elementary, where 418 students are enrolled in a facility built for 320 students.  

District officials appear stuck in neutral. DCPS has said it does not have a current use for the facility, though it hasn’t said that it no longer needs the property, either. DCPS, for its part, has convened a public workgroup to address overcrowding in Ward 3. “We look forward to continuing to engage the community on the Old Hardy School,” the Office of Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles says.

No one has put forth alternative solutions to the Lab School’s dilemma or Ward 3’s overcrowding problem. If there’s one thing the Lab School and Ward 3 parents agree on, it’s that the D.C. Council should hold public hearings and make a decision. 

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The Lab School took occupancy of Old Hardy in 2008, when it bought the lease from  a dual-language immersion school, Rock Creek International. According to the head of the Lab School, Katherine Schantz, 64 students attend at their Foxhall Road NW location, and 317 attend at a nearby facility on Reservoir Road NW. Just a third of Lab School students are D.C. residents, she says, but that is a significant population. “These kids need intensive remediation,” Schantz says. “They are here because traditional schools were unable to teach them reading and math. We feel that what we do here is of great service to the city.”

In 2012, the Department of General Services began the appraisal process for a long-term lease, and in 2013 concluded that the Lab School was the most viable option for use of the property. The site also is too small for DCPS purposes, a DGS analysis of economic factors found: “The specific economic and social benefits of the lease outweigh the benefits of retaining this property in the District’s inventory.”

In June 2013, the District signed a letter of intent to enter into a 25-year lease with the Lab School, with one option term for 25 additional years. Then-Mayor Vince Gray approved the measure, with support from current D.C. Councilmembers Jack Evans, Anita Bonds, Mary Cheh, and McDuffie. The measure, however, was aligned with a federal law stating that to be eligible to lease a public school facility, an existing tenant must have continuously occupied it since 2004, according to Bill Slover, a parent of a Key Elementary School student and chair of its overcrowding committee. (Slover also serves as vice chair of D.C. Housing Authority Board.) 

The Lab School did not become a tenant at Old Hardy until 2008.

In a December 11, 2013, memo to the Council, Slover also argued that the intent always was to return the property to DCPS should it need to meet its obligation to seat all enrolled public school children. Furthermore, Slover argued, DCPS had not formally declared that it did not need Old Hardy, which he said was a precondition for DGS to label it as surplus. “Giving away any municipal asset should not be done lightly,” Slover wrote, asking that the Council address the need of available facilities to alleviate overcrowding before approving a 25-year lease to the Lab School.

In the 11th hour, according to a letter to Council Chair Phil Mendelson,  Gray withdrew the measure “out of an abundance of caution,” so the  Deputy Mayor for Education could complete a boundary review process.  (Gray declined to comment for this story.) DGS attempted to execute the lease again in 2015, but Slover noticed a change in the law that offered charter schools the first right of refusal before the District could dispose of the property through a long-term lease, and the process was abandoned.

In May 2016, however, At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, chair of the Education Committee, inserted enabling language into legislation that changed the continuous occupancy requirement from 2004 to 2008. The Council approved that change last November in an 10-3 vote. About a month-and-a-half earlier, seven Lab School board members and their lobbyist, Ben Young, with powerhouse law firm Greenberg Traurig, had dumped $7,700 into Grosso’s campaign fund. Most of these contributions came through on October 4, 2016, according to campaign finance records. (Young is former chief of staff to former At-Large Councilmember David Catania, who also works for Greenberg, and who contributed to Grosso’s campaign that October day as well.) 

Grosso’s office did not respond to requests for comment. 

In January, Bowser returned the bill to the Council, unsigned, stating that the Council overreached its legislative authority by selecting a specific entity to receive the property, and then turned around and submitted her own version in March, the “Hardy School Disposition and Lease Amendment Act of 2017.” DGS and the Lab School signed a second letter of intent in June to propose lease terms and conditions. 

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D.C. continues to embrace the Lab School as a vital source of education for children DCPS is not equipped to handle, and who have no other option in the public school system. Schantz says the school cannot undergo costly renovations to accommodate students’ special needs without a long-term lease. “We understand the city has to evaluate its resources,” she says. “We’ll keep working through that process.”

Overcrowding in Ward 3 has not improved, with some schools at more than 100 percent capacity. In June, the Palisades Citizens’ Association and the Key Elementary School’s Parent Teacher Organization passed a resolution to  support preserving the Old Hardy School as an option for public education. The Deputy Mayor for Education is expected to produce a Master Facilities Plan in 2018 to address school crowding and population growth.

“Since 2013, I have continually asked [the District] to apply the school re-use process to the proposed disposition of the Old Hardy School,” says Slover. “If done correctly, it would show whether DCPS is able to meet the current and future capacity demand for public education seats around the Old Hardy building. If the city is so sure that they don’t need it, then why the reluctance to run the process required by D.C. law?” 

That might be a question for McDuffie, who is holding the bill in his committee. His office did not respond to requests for comment. And though Cheh voted for Gray’s measure, and Grosso’s legislation in 2016, she says: “My position is that if DCPS doesn’t want it, then come in and say so. Until that’s done, I’m going to oppose anything that short-circuits the process and deprives the community of its voice.”

Correction: Rock Creek International was a dual-language immersion school, not, as originally reported, a special needs school. Loose Lips regrets the error.