Almost immediately after she started Yu Ying public charter school in 2008, Mary Shaffner began looking for new space. Her Chinese immersion program had proven popular, and she wanted to add space to meet demand.

At first, the options looked good. School closings in that year had left buildings empty all around the District, and Shaffner applied to move into five of them. One after another, the city decided to keep the building, her application was rejected, or the process dragged on so long she gave up. Shaffner also went after space at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center after it was transferred to D.C.’s control, but that wouldn’t be ready for years—long after the lease on her 8th Street NE building expired.

Finally, a building came up that Shaffner had figured was a lost cause: An old monastery near Catholic University that another charter school occupied before going out of business in 2005. The deal closed last May, giving Yu Ying a few months to do a gut renovation, at a total cost of about $22 million cobbled together from a bank loan, city-issued bonds, and underwriting from a national charter development nonprofit. When it’s done, Yu Ying still won’t have a dedicated cafeteria, an auditorium, or a gym. The $3,000 D.C. charters get per student for facilities, while one of the more generous allocations in the country, just doesn’t leave much room for those kinds of “extras.”

Shaffner spent as much of her time finding space as dealing with educational issues for a whole year—something no traditional public school principal would have to do. But it paid off: Yu Ying ultimately fared relatively well. Other charters find themselves paying too much for buildings with no natural light and no playground space, or spread out across multiple locations, always thinking about their next home.

Sixteen years after the first charter school opened in D.C., the independent schools educate 41 percent of the District’s kids, but control nowhere near that much of the city’s educational real estate. More D.C. Public Schools buildings are likely to close in the future; many high schools, especially, are woefully under-enrolled. But the District hasn’t had a good track record of letting other organizations use the buildings, because of all the levels of community and city review involved. Could there be a better way?

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There are a couple generations of surplus D.C. school buildings. The first came after charter schools were legalized in 1995, when the financial control board sold off dozens of buildings, many of which were redeveloped as condos. Former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s administration closed 23 schools, but got around rules that the buildings must be first offered to charters, filling them with other government agencies or selling them to developers.

Now, 17 out of D.C.’s 98 charter buildings are former DCPS schools, taking up about half of those that have been made available. The rest are in commercial space, which the charters have either bought, built, or leased by borrowing against their facilities allowance. Better schools fare well here: To protect against the risk of a school losing its charter, banks use the Charter School Board’s academic rankings like bond ratings. Eighteen closed schools are being used for other purposes, eight are in the process of being unloaded, and a couple are still in limbo.

How do the empty buildings become available? Once DCPS decides to close a school, the city offers the building to charter schools, picks one, and negotiates a lease that usually runs 25 years. Then, the D.C. Council has to vote to declare the property surplus and give it to the winning charter.

All that can take two to four years, which makes things unpredictable. Washington Latin, for example, operates out of two churches and the Jewish Primary Day School* on 16th Street NW, the leases on two of which are up in a year. Eventually, Washington Latin wants to have 650 students, and applied for Rudolph Elementary in Petworth, which has sat empty for four years. “The challenge is, you can’t afford a facility for a school of 450 when you’re 300,” says head of school Martha Cutts.

In part for that reason, the District is speckled with spaces built or leased by charters when a DCPS facility would have been cheaper. One example: Friendship Public Charter School bought and renovated four DCPS schools during the control-board years at a total cost of $44.8 million. It hasn’t been able to get another since, and recently bought land on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE for a new school that will cost $30 million. Paying interest on a loan will cut into Friendship’s operational budget for years to come. The land is next to the District-owned St. Elizabeths east campus, but nobody thought to connect them.

There are other missed opportunities. Many DCPS schools are under-enrolled, leaving whole classrooms unused, but charters rarely take up the wasted space. They’re also not included in most big development projects, like the Southwest Waterfront or McMillan Sand Filtration Plant. Charters sometimes can’t even open in places where there might be demand. Expensive Ward 3’s elementary schools are overflowing, but no charter school could afford to move there.

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The situation might be improving. At the moment, the Deputy Mayor for Education’s staff is putting together a plan that’s supposed to allocate space more intelligently and funnel school buildings back to charters faster.

But is the system still too structurally screwed up to work right? Tom Nida, a regional president at United Bank who chaired the D.C. Public Charter School Board and now chairs the national Charter Schools Development Corporation, thinks giving charters a certain amount of money per student is both inefficient and unfair—especially when the facilities allowance is threatened with cuts, as it was this year, which makes banks leery about handing out loans.

Nida favors an independent authority that would arbitrate the needs of neighborhoods and schools. Right now, DCPS tends to operate in its own interest, by trying to hang on to schools even if they’re not strictly necessary. Charters sometimes avoid the most efficient option, like sharing space with an underenrolled DCPS school, because they have the money to be on their own instead. Both sides tend to forget that it’s all the District’s money—just parceled out in different ways.

“Whether we want to admit or not, there’s always animosity between a traditional and a charter school,” says Tom Porter, who helps charters navigate real estate though a nonprofit called Building Hope. “I guess my frustration is that I don’t feel like there’s a partnership. Sometimes I still feel like it’s us against them.”

Of course, nobody in the fiercely independent charter movement likes being told what to do and where to go. But if they could spend more time educating and less time trying to develop real estate, it might be worth it.

* CORRECTION, Wednesday, June 20: Not three churches, as originally reported.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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