Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Testimony Before The D.C. Council Education Committee 

Testimony that I plan to present today:

My name is Mark Lerner and for the past three months I have served as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the William E. Doar, Jr., Public Charter School for the Performing Arts (WEDJ PCS), a brand-new charter that opened in September 2004 with approximately 160 pre-k to fifth-grade students. I have been a member of the board of trustees for just under two years. Before joining the WEDJ PCS, I sat on the Board of Trustees of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy for three years. During my tenure on the Chavez board and for one year prior to being asked to become a trustee of the school, I was a proud volunteer tutor who worked with its students in the evenings to help them complete their homework assignments.

I come to speak to you today about an issue of which I am sure you are already quite aware: namely the almost intractable problem of charter schools obtaining permanent facilities. You are looking at someone who has 5 years of experience with this issue. Thank you, members of the Council, for allowing me to share my views on this subject with you.

Cesar Chavez is currently located in a previously abandoned building at 1346 Florida Avenue N.W., a site which is totally inadequate for the nearly 300 D.C. school children in attendance. In my time there I witnessed teachers who lacked areas outside of the classrooms where they could work, kids taking final exams during the winter with their coats on because of inadequate heat, and children unable to hear their teacher in the spring because the classroom windows had to remain open to get sufficient air into the building and the city traffic drowned out what the instructor was saying.

The initial opening of WEDJ was not much different. We started in September 2004 in a converted warehouse with partitions for classroom walls. The noise level was so high that most teachers had to have their students sit on the floor immediately in front of them to be able to hold class.

The fact that this is the environment for D.C. students who need and deserve a world-class public education and who have chosen an alternative to their neighborhood school is, in my view, morally wrong and not fair. It is a situation which must be immediately corrected.

The reasons behind this crisis have been explained many times before. Charter schools are start-up businesses. As such they don't have the capital to purchase buildings. Banks are reluctant to lend money to new charters because they lack a financial history. The per pupil facility allotment charters receive severely restricts what space they can afford in Washington D.C.'s red-hot commercial real estate market.

The results of these factors have been described above. Most charters are forced to locate in the less desirable areas of town, in buildings that should never be used as schools. Some fail to open or expand their program as planned due to a lack of space. But one of the worst outcomes of this situation is that attempts to solve the puzzle and find a permanent facility take an amazing amount of time and energy. These are scarce resources that should instead be used to further the strategic mission of all charter schools, namely to prepare children in the nation's capital to become successful citizens who can make a positive contribution to the future of this country.

My experience with WEDJ, however, has been much more positive than the three years I spent trying to find a home for Cesar Chavez. Our school was fortunate enough to take advantage of the community service-inspired work of the Fred Ezra Company. Last Spring, Core Ventures, an investment group associated with Ezra, purchased two building on Edgewood Street N.E., right next to the Edgewood Terrace apartments, with the goal of renting them to charter schools. We negotiated a contract to rent approximately 22,000 square feet of space at 705 Edgewood Street, and our agreement contains both the option to purchase the areas we are leasing and the right of first refusal to take on additional room in the 75,000 square feet building. We were also extremely fortunate to have received a $2,000,000 loan from the City's Office of Banking and Finance for tenant improvements. Over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend the WEDJ PCS moved into the most beautiful school I have ever seen. You are all invited to come by anytime for a tour.

We at the WEDJ PCS are thrilled with what we refer to as "Miracle 1" (obtaining a permanent facility in our first year of operation.) Most schools will not be nearly so lucky. However, we do not have time to rest.

No charter school opens with the enrollment it plans to have when it reaches maturity. For example, Cesar Chavez started with 75 ninth-grade students and then grew a grade a year until it came to resemble a traditional high school. We would like to add students in a similar manner, until we reach our charter's limit of 1,200 kids in pre-k though twelfth. So now we are looking for "Miracle II." "Miracle II" would be to lock-in additional space now so that as we become larger we will have room in our facility for the additional students.

The bottom floor of our building, which contains approximately 50,000 square feet, is currently vacant. According to our D.C. Charter School Board's approved student enrollment plan it will take us five years to have a sufficient number of pupils to be able to afford all of this space. Core Ventures would love to rent this area to us but as a business with investors they cannot allow it to remain empty. No one, not our bank, the D.C. Charter School Board, nor our landlord, will permit us to rent property now because we do not have the enrollment, and therefore the facility allotment dollars, to support the property financially. We have no choice but to sit back as bystanders and watch the first floor become leased to another charter school. Then in coming years, unless we are fortunate enough for a developer who has a heart for charter schools to purchase additional abandoned buildings for us, when we need more classrooms we will be one of many institutions going through the same frustrating exercise that is taking place now all over this City. It is not a future to which I am looking forward to or one in which I want to participate.

Since the problems I describe are being experienced by almost everyone involved in the exciting charter school movement, and because Washington, D.C. is a national leader of this movement with over 20% of all school-aged students enrolled today in a charter school, and due to the fact that the facility issue is draining every bit of energy out of those who are in the forefront of reforming inner city education, I believe that it is in all of our best interests to solve the problem once and for all of how charter schools obtain permanent facilities to open new schools and expand into once they are established. I look forward to the Committee's active participation in the resolution of this issue.

Thank you for your time today.

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