The apple of Mary Filardo’s eye—besides her three children—is a spanking new elementary school in a wooded neighborhood two miles north of the White House.
Built by an unusual set of partners, the $11 million building could offer a model for other cities that are feeling pressed to keep up with their school facilities needs.
In short, the District of Columbia deeded part of the campus to a developer, which tore down the old school and erected a nine-story, upscale apartment building on its portion of the land. On the other, it built a new school. The developer’s profit from the 211 apartments will be used to pay off the bonds used to finance the school.
Ms. Filardo and other parents whose children have filled the classrooms at James F. Oyster Bilingual School sing its praises. What the school—also called Escuela Bilingüe Oyster—lacked, though, was a building that fit its mission.
Besides teaching 350 students in grades K-6 how to speak and spell and write in both English and Spanish, the school is an academic leader and engaging place in a 77,000-student district better known for subpar test scores.
From the street, the original Oyster School, erected in 1926, was a handsome, traditional brick building of its era. But inside, the rooms were too small, and like many of schools in Washington and other cities, it needed repairs. There was no real library, the roof leaked, and parents say a giant oven sat in the room where children ate lunch and played ball during gym class. The lot included portable classrooms, all of them beaten by 20 years of use.
Parents decided they wanted a new building and would do just about anything to get it. A flower child, as retiring Oyster School Principal Paquita Holland called her, Ms. Filardo was an activist looking for an activity.
Her children attended Oyster, a 10-minute walk from their Northwest Washington home. She and other parents began discussions around 1992; they held neighborhood meetings and talked with school officials about renovating or replacing the school. Ms. Filardo even lobbied members of Congress, who ultimately have control over the city’s school budget.
The trouble was, the city and its school district had no money for school construction.
What they did have, though, was the Oyster School’s 1.7-acre tract of land in an attractive neighborhood convenient to the subway, restaurants, and the National Zoo, and near the trendy Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle areas. A great place for an upscale apartment building—but a school was in the way.
The decision by local officials to give up part of the campus, in exchange for fees in lieu of tax payments for the next 30 years, made it a smart deal for the developer, the school district, and the city, said John Stainback, the national director of public-private development for LCOR Inc. The Berwyn, Pa.-based company developed the new Oyster School.
The idea to construct the apartment building was born in parents’ discussions, and with advice from Mr. Stainback and financial advisers, it took shape. A $200,000 grant from the Ford Foundation helped the 21st Century School Fund, a group started by Ms. Filardo, pay for initial design and planning. The nonprofit fund now helps other urban communities and school districts with construction and planning.
“It’s probably the smallest project I’ve ever worked on,” Mr. Stainback added. “But I consider this the most important project I’ve ever worked on.”
The best part: It took no cash to build. Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. guaranteed the $40 million financing for the deal.
Advocates of the public-private partnership say it wasn’t simple, but the success of the project makes it an enticing idea that could spread.
The biggest hurdle was getting started, along with the ups and downs of seeking necessary approvals from a school district bureaucracy unfamiliar with such a project.
“The problem is, the government doesn’t know how to respond,” said Ms. Filardo. “There’s not a great culture of cooperation ... but we’re learning.”
Still, the developers praise District of Columbia school officials for seeing the project to the end.
“They took a big risk by allowing the private sector into the building of public schools,” said R. William Hard, an executive vice president of LCOR. “We took a risk that it could be built on time and on budget—and that the apartment building next door will be a good enough investment. We think that will be the case.”
An Oyster-style deal wouldn’t work for every city or every school construction project, but it might work far more often than most people realize, say the developers of the Washington school. Developers, after all, are interested in valuable, hard-to-find property in big cities.
School districts and other local governments could raise money and provide better public buildings by making better use of public land, Mr. Stainback said.
“I’m flabbergasted this hasn’t been done more already,” said Mr. Stainback, the author of the 2000 book Public/Private Finance and Development. “What if it was 10 to 20 to 30 percent of schools across the country? The effect would be enormous.”
Ms. Filardo and District of Columbia school leaders say the city holds more possibilities for other public-private partnerships. The school system aims to renovate or replace at least 10 of its 150 schools each year for the next decade; partnerships could help pay for an estimated one-tenth of construction costs.
“In order to do more projects here, there will be other sacrifices—higher taxes, sharing land,” said Ms. Filardo, standing in the new Oyster School cafeteria. “All of the children of the District of Columbia deserve this.”
Sarah Woodhead, an Oyster School parent and an architect who this year became the deputy director of facilities for Washington’s public schools, is working on a policy that will spell out how such deals would be handled in the future.
She urges districts to weigh carefully the costs and benefits of any public-private partnership deal. “Giving up half the site is a sacrifice. It was definitely worth it, but it’s kind of a soul-searching decision,” Ms. Woodhead said. “There’s nothing that’s free.”
Caution is appropriate when selecting which projects might fit such a partnership, Ms. Woodhead stressed. Developers can come up with creative ideas, she said, but a district must ensure that any school construction meets the educational goals of the community above all.
Now, the new Oyster School is open: a three-story brick building almost twice the size of the old one, with a dark-green, sloped roof topped with a little spire. It boasts a full-size gymnasium, 33 underground parking spaces, and L-shaped classrooms that allow the two teachers in each class to easily handle small-group activities. A concrete sign above the front doors announces the school’s name in English and Spanish.
To celebrate the school’s completion, Oyster’s 6th graders held their graduation ceremony inside the new school last June, even though they hadn’t attended class on the site in three years.
One of the high-profile guests was Superintendent of Schools Paul L. Vance, who declared the school a sign of things to come in a city that hadn’t built a school in more than 20 years and has dozens in need of renovation.
“This is a singly important moment in the history of the school system,” Mr. Vance said, speaking before 150 parents, children, and guests. “It is a place where love prevails—the model for creating a learning community in our city. A model, during my watch as superintendent, we will follow.”
Students ushered guests through the building during an open house. Teachers showed off their rooms, many of which have large windows. Having the school back closer to the main area its serves, including a largely Hispanic neighborhood, Mount Pleasant, felt like coming home for some.
“This is going to bring us together,” said curriculum specialist Gloria Rodriguez, standing in the doorway of her new office.
Principal Holland stepped onto the light-oak stage, and as she reached the podium, the crowd gave her a standing ovation. Repeating every sentence in Spanish, she welcomed the audience back after the three-year absence for construction.
“We have struggled for so many years to provide an educational environment” worthy of the students, she said. “It was a struggle. We’ve survived it all, and we’re coming home.”