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Federal Law to Aid Charter Schools in the District of Columbia Draws Flak

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District of Columbia officials are screaming foul over a new federal provision that requires their city to offer any surplus school property to charter schools for at least 25 percent less than its appraised value.

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu

The measure was introduced by Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., as an amendment to the annual spending bill for Washington’s local government. The bill became law last month. But local leaders are now complaining that they were never told that the amendment was in the works—not by Sen. Landrieu’s office, nor by Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a local charter advocacy group that pushed the initiative.

“Whenever you have a local organization that actively undermines home rule, it is upsetting,’’ said Jim Graham, a Democratic member of the District of Columbia Council, who described himself as an advocate of charter schools. “This is local property, and it was local decisionmaking which has been taken out of our hands.’’

He said the city would now work to have the requirement repealed.

Charter advocates say going over the local government’s head was the only way they could force it to turn over surplus buildings to needy schools instead of selling them for profit to others buyers.

“The [local] administration has for all these years ignored charter school needs while deciding what to do with the surplus buildings,’’ said Robert Cane, the executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.

Mr. Cane said the law previously gave Washington charter schools first preference in buying surplus school buildings. But of the 58 buildings declared surplus since 1996, charter schools were able to get only 13.

The new measure says that charter schools will get the “right of first offer’’ to lease or purchase surplus buildings at a 25 percent discount.

Charter schools have grown rapidly in the District of Columbia since they were first authorized in 1995. Charters enroll just under 16,000 students this year, around 20 percent of the total public school enrollment in the city. Mr. Cane said that of the 42 charter schools, two-thirds have yet to find permanent facilities.

Brian Geiger, a spokesman for Sen. Landrieu, said the law that authorized charter schools in the city had intended for such schools to get a preference for surplus school buildings.

“This was just a tweak to ensure that happened,’’ he said.

Vol. 24, Issue 12, Page 24

Published in Print: November 17, 2004, as Valuable Real Estate

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