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Charter schools find that there’s little room for them in D.C. Public School buildings—even when the buildings are empty.

If Robin Megibow feels more like a bureaucrat than an English teacher, you can forgive her. Five days a week, the stylishly dressed instructor maneuvers her car through morning rush hour to the shopping-center-cum-office-building at 4th and M Streets SW. Walking past the Safeway and the RadioShack, she heads up a plain stairwell to an equally bland section of the second floor, which, until late 1997, housed staffers from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Her students likely feel just as out of place. The more than 300 high-schoolers at Megibow’s school, the Washington Math Science Technology (WMST) Public Charter High School, fill up most of the second-floor space. Megibow adds that the classroom walls are too thin to keep out noise from surrounding rooms, and there’s not enough space for common areas, like a gymnasium.

Still, it’s better than the shopping center’s basement, where the science school met before the upstairs space was ready. Teachers used dividers to portion off the large open area, says Megibow. “If you were teaching in this cubicle, you could hear everything that was going on in the next several cubicles,” she says.

“We’re in a shopping center,” says Robert Hobson, chair of the school’s board of trustees. “We’re just one tenant among half a dozen others.”

Like any dissatisfied tenant, Hobson’s school has been trying to move. Even before the school “temporarily” moved into the mall in 1998, its leaders had already identified an ideal site: Franklin School, an empty D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) building at 13th and K Streets NW. The building is perfect, says Hobson: Close to a Metro and across the street from Franklin Park, it’s also near offices for technology companies like IBM and Eastman Kodak, which Hobson hopes will aid his school. A national historic landmark, Franklin has a past that reflects the science school’s theme. In 1880, local resident Alexander Graham Bell tested his photophone—the first contraption to send wireless messages over a beam of light—on the schoolhouse roof, according to a study on the building’s history. “For symbolic as well as practical reasons, it’s ideal for us,” Hobson says.

And the building—located on valuable downtown property—was for sale. In February 1998, the school system, which hadn’t occupied the building in almost a decade, finally put it up for bids. WMST and about 10 other would-be owners made their offers, says Jack McCarthy, a member of the school’s board and managing director of the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation, a local nonprofit that co-founded WMST. The school came in second. And, according to a 1997 city policy, charter schools get preference in bids on unused DCPS buildings if their bids fall within 15 percent to 25 percent of the top offer, depending on the price.

At $2.55 million, WMST’s bid met the requirements. They were in.

Or so it seemed. WMST higher-ups traded paperwork back and forth with DCPS higher-ups. But a year later, the deal still wasn’t done. And last spring, control board members rejected the deal on the recommendation of the appointed Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees, according to control board Executive Director Francis S. Smith.

McCarthy, an efficient-looking guy whose cheeks redden when he talks about the Franklin building, says WMST board members were given little explanation about why their bid was rejected at the final hour.

Advocates such as Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), worry that it was an effort to block the growth of a charter school. “WMST played the game by the rules set up by DCPS,” says Cane. “They did everything as required, and they lost the building anyway. It’s very difficult to conclude that it was anything other than a deliberate refusal to part with this building.”

Charter-school organizers have every reason to be suspicious of how they’re being treated by the school system. Schools like Paul Junior High, which is slated to convert to a charter this fall, and the Hyde Leadership Public Charter School have run into similar roadblocks when it comes to getting space in DCPS-owned buildings.

Those conflicts are likely to be repeated. Charter schools in D.C. may have more students—now about 7,000—than expected, but they’re still regularly stymied in efforts to get facilities. WMST’s experience at the shopping mall suggests that those who control the inventory of school buildings may control local schools’ destinies. Advocates say DCPS higher-ups have denied access to their backlog of unoccupied schoolhouses as part of an effort to thwart the charter-school movement.

By last October, the Franklin tug of war had gained the attention of Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), chair of the House D.C. appropriations subcommittee. Istook sent a letter to the control board asking why WMST’s bid had been rejected. In response, Smith cited questions about the relationship between WMST and AppleTree, “technical legal flaws” in the bid, and McCarthy’s role as a representative for the school in the transactions. He added that the building, which had been appraised at $4.1 million, might be worth much, much more.

The congressman called the explanation a “cover story” in a January letter to the control board. “I am poised to request a full and thorough [General Accounting Office] investigation into how supposed ‘technical flaws’ are used to mask actual motives, namely to undercut the charter school movement which is drawing so much support from parents of students in the District,” Istook wrote.

Smith refutes the accusations, asserting that the sale was rejected for legitimate reasons. It doesn’t matter too much now, he adds. DCPS officials now say they may need the building after all.

If school system bosses are jerking WMST around, it’s partly because they can. The science school’s brief history has featured the very sorts of conflicts that make it easy for DCPS to undercut real estate plans.

Last summer, WMST’s board of trustees ousted founding Principal Mary Johnson. When Johnson supporters protested, the D.C. Public Charter School Board conducted a review of the school. In a report issued last October, the board upheld Johnson’s removal.

At the same time, the board investigated claims that AppleTree was too involved in the school’s operation and that the organization had accepted a grant meant for WMST. The October report recommended that AppleTree limit its day-to-day role, but found no evidence that the nonprofit was acting without WMST cooperation. And, according to the report, the grant had been intended for AppleTree after all.

Smith, however, cites similar concerns in defending the control board’s rejection of the Franklin School sale. He says that control board staffers had received anonymous phone calls from people associated with WMST, who said that school’s trustees knew nothing about McCarthy’s attempt to purchase the Franklin School. WMST’s Hobson denies those charges as well, saying that the effort to buy Franklin had been part of the science school’s plan even before it opened. Hobson says McCarthy had full authority to act on behalf of the school.

With complaints against WMST dismissed, Hobson says, the control board had no real reason to doubt the viability of the science school’s bid. The school did not have a problem coming up with the $100,000 down payment, and it had secured financing from a local bank. McCarthy adds that if DCPS officials had questions about WMST’s bid, they should have raised them before the bidding process commenced. “If we were not a qualified bidder, don’t you think somebody would have let us know during that time?” asks McCarthy.

The advertised cost of the Franklin building also seemed to shift under WMST’s feet. Smith says control board members worry that the property, valued at $4.1 million in a 1998 appraisal, might be worth more like $14.5 million, according to a recent D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue estimate. But Istook says the bidding process established the real market value of the property—and it was nowhere near $14.5 million. “It’s easy to overvalue what they don’t want to sell,” he says.

Morris E. James, the appraiser whom the school system hired to come up with the 1998 estimate, says appraisals often don’t correspond with tax assessments—which overlook many key factors. The Franklin School’s historic status, for instance, means that the building can’t be razed or significantly changed without approval from local and national agencies. That fact would likely turn off most developers looking to build high-rise offices, says McCarthy.

Istook says the situation looks even more suspicious because of what’s happened since the bid was rejected. Smith says that in August the control board removed the Franklin School from its list of surplus buildings after DCPS officials said they might need it—although Smith couldn’t recall exactly why they wanted it. Gerald F. Cooke, director of the DCPS real estate office, confirms that “DCPS intends to continue to pursue whether or not that building is suitable for housing an academic program.” But he offers no details. “Maybe alternative education,” he says. Cooke says the process of putting a building up for sale can cost DCPS $10,000 to $12,000.

“They didn’t have a use for it until they found out the charter schools had a use for it,” Istook says. The Franklin School sale, as well as other sources of friction between charter schools and the traditional system, has prompted Istook to schedule a congressional hearing in March. “Some of their answers are just too convenient, especially when you consider they’re brand-new answers.”

Empty, decaying school buildings have kept District leaders reaching for the aspirin for more than a decade. DCPS higher-ups say dumping city property is complicated—and this latest flap has nothing to do with any effort to do in charter schools.

So far, Cooke says, the school system has leased buildings to 17 charter schools, some with the option to buy. “I think the real estate office of DCPS has a really good rapport with charter schools,” says Cooke. “I view charter schools as one of my constituencies. I’m here to serve them, as I am to serve any other interested party.”

But FOCUS’s Robert Cane scoffs at the sort of friendship the school system has shown charter schools. Even for those that manage to get space, the process is long and complicated, says Cane. Hyde Leadership Public Charter School officials negotiated for more than a year before their sale was finally approved. By that point, a partner in the transaction had dropped out, and Hyde could no longer afford the building. The school ended up renting space in a DCPS-owned building next door, which had been vacated by another charter school.

“The process has been dreadful all along,” says Cane. “It’s a scandal we’ve been fighting now for two years.”

As for WMST, it has a lease at the shopping mall through the end of the 2001-2002 school year. Hobson and other board members keep their eyes open for other buildings. But they hope that

somehow the Franklin deal will come through. “We need to accommodate the education of kids,” says Hobson. “But we can’t do that without a building, obviously.” CP