Suzanne Wells Testimony – DC Council – Comprehensive Plan Amendment Act of 2020

Committee of the Whole

Bill 23-736

Comprehensive Plan Amendment Act of 2020

November 13, 2020

            My name is Suzanne Wells.  I am the president of the Ward 6 Public Schools Parent Organization.  Our organization is a member of the Coalition for DC Public Schools and Communities.  Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the District of Columbia’s Comprehensive Plan Amendment Act of 2020.  My testimony is focused on the Educational Facilities Element.  I offer five suggestions for how the draft can and should be improved. 

            First, the proposed Education Facilities Element makes random mentions of the role high quality, matter-of-right schools in every community play in attracting and retaining families with children in the city.  It is important for the Council to explicitly state at the beginning of the Educational Facilities Element the City’s responsibility to provide high-quality, matter-of-right neighborhood schools and feeder systems in all eight wards.  The Comprehensive Plan should also call for city-wide student assignment policies that promote racial and socioeconomic diversity in our matter-of-right schools.

            Second, if the Council is interested in being fiscally responsible, it should be very concerned about the sections of the proposed Educational Facilities Element that suggest  investing in new school capacity. In school year 2017/2018, the city had approximately 21,000 empty seats across DCPS and the charter sector.  Since 2018, DCPS has opened one new selective high school, and expanded one selective high school.  In the past two years, the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) has opened six new elementary, middle and high schools, and expanded existing charter schools.  Having this much excess educational facilities capacity is expensive.  It results in spreading our education dollars thinly across many schools, and often prevents the city from investing in the types of programming students deserve.  Our city needs to be much more intentional about making school opening decisions based on projected student enrollment.  The Educational Facilities Element should underscore the need for such planning ,and certainly should not broadly encourage additional capacity.

            Third, while the District is to be commended for its commitment to DCPS school modernizations, there are three changes that could strengthen the proposed plan relating to the modernizations.  First, any further school modernizations should set a target for net zero energy use.  Second, there need to be more resources devoted to maintaining the schools that are modernized to protect the investments the city has made in these buildings.  And, third, there should be a date certain to complete full school modernizations for all our schools.  Many of the schools yet to be modernized are east of the river.  Every community deserves a fully modernized school. 

Fourth, Section 1203.3 suggests studying neighborhood impacts when locating DCPS and public charter schools. Studying these impacts is curiously limited to only situations when schools are located in non-school facilities.  We have numerous instances of controversial openings of new schools steps away from existing schools.  I think the intent of studying impacts when locating schools is wise, but this section should be revised to require an educational impact assessment for any new school opening regardless of the type of facility the school is located in.

            Finally, section 1208.15 on the Reuse of DCPS School Surplus Space should be stricken because it encourages co-location of charter schools in under enrolled DCPS school buildings. Co-location was the subject of substantial controversy during recent debates on the 2020 Budget Support Act.  At that time, Councilmembers claimed a co-location amendment did not encourage such co-locations but merely set the terms of them. The Educational Facilities Element explicitly encourages such co-locations.  Locating a charter school in an under enrolled DCPS school building could significantly limit options DCPS has to utilize its facilities, and would work directly against the overarching goal of strengthening the matter-of-right feeder systems around the city.  

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