Applying CEQA urban decay concept to DC charter school approval process
Most of the schools have about half the enrollment or less of what they were built to accommodate.
This has been exacerbated lately by the rebuilding of a couple of schools, when they should have been demolished and closed, in order to strengthen the enrollment of the remaining schools.
Instead all the schools are getting remodeled, at a cost of $100 to $150 million each.
One place that is happening is Ward 4, where I live. I live a couple blocks from Coolidge High School and I would like for it to be a great school.
But because it competes for students with Roosevelt High School, about 2 miles away, neither school is able to attain large enough enrollments which would enable the necessary conditions required to offer a well rounded curriculum.
I was talking about this over the weekend with a Takoma resident-advocate, who has been involved in child and family issues in the city since the 1960s, and we were "arguing" about my opposition to building a middle school on the grounds of the Takoma Recreation Center. She jokingly scoffed at one of my suggestions--building a school on the top of the Walmart on Georgia Avenue--and I countered with another suggestion, building a middle school on the parking lot of Paul Charter Junior High.
She told me that they are planning to build a high school there.
The reason that the city's public schools are losing so much enrollment is that there is no real check on the opening of new charter schools in terms of the impact on enrollments of existing schools.
Building a new high school between two other high schools which are under-enrolled by more than 1,000 students collectively will only aggravate the problem--which was in part touched off by the former Paul Junior High School, which was a "feeder" to Coolidge, becoming one of the city's first charter schools back in the early 1990s.
There is a public interest in using scarce resources well, and the continued growth in charter schools while overall student enrollment is growing, but very slowly, and not at a pace commensurate with the number of schools that have opened and are approved for opening.
Basically the city's student population hasn't grown much since the 1990s, when it was determined tha the city schools were reporting higher enrollments than were likely to be true.
Demographic analysis determined that the student population was around 80,000, and it still is around that number--including charter and traditional schools ("D.C. school enrollment increases, with charters growing faster than DCPS," Post). Most of the recent gains have come from the extension of Pre-K programming to children aged 3 yeaars.
That means that the rampant creation of new charter schools is leading to the destruction of existing public resources in terms of the extant schools.
2. The Urban Decay concept in the California Environmental Quality Assessment process. When dealing with the Walmart issue a few years ago (ANC4B Large Tract Review Report on Walmart, 5/2011) I advocated for stronger mitigation requirements on the company and the developer--something that the elected officials were completely uninterested in--even though it is arguable that this is allowed for within the City's Large Tract Review regulations, even though the Office of Planning has decided that economic impact isn't a "neighborhood impact" for which there should be study or mitigation.
Urban Decay is a concept in CEQA that calls for the evaluation of the impact of new development, usually retail, on existing development.
If an argument can be made that the new development will be deleterious to existing places, then there has to be mitigation and changes in the project in significant ways. I presume this could include not approving the project as well.
From the chapter on Environmental Setting, Impacts, and Mitigation Measures from the City of Eureka Marina Center Environmental Impact Report:
Urban decay is physical deterioration that is so prevalent and substantial it impairs the proper use of affected real estate, or the health, safety, and welfare of the surrounding community (CBRE, 2006). Physical deterioration can include abnormally high business vacancies, abandoned buildings and industrial sites, boarded doors and windows, long term unauthorized use of properties and parking lots, extensive gang or offensive graffiti painted on buildings, dumping of waste or overturned dumpsters on property, dead trees or shrubbery, uncontrolled weed growth, and homeless encampments.
Recent findings by the State of California’s Appellate Court (Bakersfield Citizens for Local Control v. City of Bakersfield (2004) 124 Cal.App.4th 1884) have interpreted the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as requiring disclosure of the possibility for “urban decay” when considering projects that include a large-format retailer, such as the proposed Home Depot store.
It is important to recognize that, like most CEQA requirements, this standard is focused on impacts to the physical environment and as such it requires the consideration of conditions of disinvestment that could result in the decay of real property as a result of the defined project. These conditions are distinct from conditions of blight which are defined by the California Health and Safety Code (sections 33030-33039) which set the standards for the adoption of redevelopment project areas. The urban decay disclosure requirement is relatively new, and as a result the standards and practices related to compliance are still somewhat unsettled and evolving.3. DC's environmental assessment laws. Arguably, an extremely good lawyer could make a similar argument vis-a-vis DC's environmental assessment requirements, which are stronger in law and regulations than in practice.
The legal case in Ivy City, about the use of the vacant Crummell School as a bus yard for Union Station, is in part based on such an argument, and so far it has been successful.
4. I would argue that "School Decay" provisions need to be added to the process for approving new charter schools. Note that it is only very recently that the Washington Post ("New D.C. charter school highlights debate over planning")--the newspaper has been a strong proponent of charter schools for some time--has acknowledged this problem. From the article:
Henderson called Harmony’s move an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars and a sign of a choice that the city is going to have to make: Does the District want to plan for the coexistence of charter schools alongside a system of traditional neighborhood schools? Or does the city want to continue with a laissez-faire approach that Henderson said could give rise to a “cannibalistic environment” in which “somebody gets eaten”
“Either we want neighborhood schools or we want cannibalism, but you can’t have both,” Henderson said, adding her voice to a growing chorus of people who have called for joint planning between traditional and charter schools and perhaps a limit on the number of independent charter schools in the District.
“A citywide conversation about how many schools do we need, and how do we get to the right number of schools, as opposed to continuing to allow as many schools to proliferate as possible, is probably a necessary conversation to have at some point,” Henderson said.While the quotes are ridiculous, because such a conversation/planning process shouldn't be an option, but is in fact absolutely necessary--and it should have happened in the 1990s! at the outset of the creation of charter schools--it's a step forward that the problem is finally making it into print.
-- "One way in which community planning is completely backwards."
-- "Missing the most important point about closing Clifton School in Fairfax County"
-- "Rethinking community planning around maintaining neighborhood civic assets and anchors"
-- "WTF continued: DC Public Schools -- schools as fundamental building blocks of vibrant neighborhoods"
It's another illlustration of weak planning processes in the city, which includes not having a public and transparent capital improvements planning and budgeting process.
Such a process should cover capital improvements programs for all civic assets, including charter schools, investments in existing public schools, school deaccession, etc. .
Recommendation: In any case, when there isn't demand for new schools, other than by taking away enrollment from existing schools, except in extraordinary circumstances, the application to create a new charter school should not be approved.