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SECRET TALKS
Ex-deputy mayor heads charter-tied group
expecting to partner on school renovations

(Published October 31, 2005)

By LAURA PETERSEN
Staff Writer

City leaders, including some elected officials, have been meeting behind closed doors with business representatives who are creating a private, nonprofit organization intended to help renovate school facilities in the District of Columbia.

The nonprofit, called EdBuild, is being crafted by the elite Federal City Council business organization with financial backing from NewSchools Venture Fund, an organization with offices in Boston and San Francisco that has strong ties to the national charter school movement.

Discussions about a public-private partnership between EdBuild and D.C. Public Schools have been underway for more than a year, according to former deputy mayor Neil Albert, who left his D.C. government post Oct. 28 and was to start as EdBuild's chief executive officer on Oct. 31.

"I expect a partnership to be formed between DCPS and EdBuild," said Albert, who also told The Common Denominator during a telephone interview that he expects joint projects to be underway by next summer.

Some public school advocates, who learned about EdBuild only last week, are expressing concerns about the lack of public discussion on the new nonprofit's intended role – especially as the D.C. City Council has spent many months this year publicly debating the creation of a public funding stream for repairing the schools.

"It's obviously a done deal with absolutely no public input," said Lee Glazer, co-founder of Save Our Schools, a parent-led group working to improve the city's public schools.

Many of the city's elected leaders failed to return phone calls seeking comment on EdBuild's role as part of the discussed $2 billion upgrade of school facilities. Those who did said they knew little, if anything, about the organization.

"It's so new, it's still making the rounds down here," said Mark Johnson, press secretary to D.C. City Council Chairman Linda Cropp, who was unavailable for comment.

EdBuild was incorporated in the District on Sept. 16 by four persons, according to documents on file with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. The four incorporators, also serving as the organization's initial board of directors, include John W. Hill, chief executive officer of the Federal City Council, a powerful business organization whose members are selected by a committee chaired by Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham. The Federal City Council has been a major facilitator in the creation of D.C. charter schools.

Also named were Jordan Meranus, a principal of NewSchools Venture Fund, a venture philanthropy firm whose Web site touts its support of numerous programs related to charter schools; LeGrande Baldwin, a retired D.C. Public Schools administrator who was in charge of former superintendent Paul Vance's "transformation schools" program; and Donna Rattley Washington, former vice president and general manager of Comcast's D.C. cable television franchise and currently a board member of the D.C.-based consulting firm Aurora Associates International Inc.

Hill, who headed the staff of the now-dormant financial control board that Congress imposed on the D.C. government in the mid-1990s, disclosed the recent incorporation of EdBuild during a city council hearing Oct. 25 about options for financing the modernization of all D.C. public schools. Testifying on behalf of the Federal City Council, Hill was among business leaders who urged the city council to delay action on a financing plan.

The council has spent much of this year trying to craft legislation that would provide up to $2 billion in public funds for improvements to the District's more than 140 school buildings, most of which are dilapidated and long neglected.

The debate, ongoing for years in the public domain, was sparked at the legislative level earlier this year when Ward 4 Councilman Adrian Fenty proposed the use of D.C. Lottery proceeds to finance the issuance of up to $1 billion in long-term municipal bonds to repair and upgrade the public schools.

Since that time, and following public consideration before two council committees, a consensus has developed among council members that a long-term funding stream needs to be created for fixing the schools. But debate continues over whether to dedicate bond financing, tax increases or unanticipated operating budget surpluses to the project. Some officials have estimated the total need for school modernization, in today's dollars, at about $2.5 billion.

The chairmen of the two committees that have considered the legislation, Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans and Ward 3 Councilwoman Kathy Patterson, have offered their own separate funding proposals. Evans, who chairs the Finance and Revenue Committee, has introduced a plan that relies heavily on the city's ability to continue generating surplus unbudgeted revenue. A plan put forward by Patterson, who chairs the education committee, would dedicate increases in existing taxes and revenue realized from repealing a scheduled 2007 income tax cut.

Both chairmen's proposals require that a management structure not currently in existence within D.C. Public Schools be created to secure the school modernization money.

Patterson's Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation is scheduled to mark up the legislation on Nov. 9.

"There is concern whether the school system has the ability to spend its dollars effectively… there may be room for a group like EdBuild," said At-Large Councilman Phil Mendelson, a member of the education committee who said he was unaware of EdBuild before speaking with The Common Denominator.

D.C. Board of Education members Tommy Wells, William Lockridge and Joanne Ginsberg all emphasized during the board's Oct. 26 monthly meeting the need for the school system to wisely manage whatever funding the council eventually provides for capital improvements to the schools.

During the session, the school board approved a resolution calling on the city council, which controls school funding, to provide "predictable, stable, and adequate resources … to ensure that another generation of children does not have to endure our failure to provide a safe and decent environment in which to learn."

Mendelson said he believes that city officials have three options for effectively managing school construction money: contract out management to a separate entity, manage operations in-house or create a mayorally appointed "board of works" for the schools.

Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham said he has little faith in the school system's ability to handle wisely such a large amount of funding.

"If I'm going to vote for a billion dollars, I want to see it go to an independent agency," he said.

Graham said he had heard "not a thing" about EdBuild and would not consider a nonprofit organization as the right independent agency to manage the funding for school revitalization.

No formal arrangement has been made between EdBuild and DCPS, according to Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who said they are in "embryonic talking stages." However, she and board member Carrie Thornhill, a mayoral appointee, emphasized their support for public-private partnerships.

"We can't do all the work by ourselves. We need private partnerships," Thornhill said.

Public-private partnerships are a part of Superintendent Clifford B. Janey's objectives for strengthening the public school system, according to several people who have been working with the superintendent on his "master plan" for improving DCPS. Janey was out of town and unavailable to comment on EdBuild, according to a school system spokeswoman.

"The more Janey thinks outside of the box, the better," Fenty said, though he added that he was only "vaguely aware" of EdBuild.

NewSchools Venture Fund's Marenus said "close work" between EdBuild and DCPS has been done since EdBuild founders approached school officials to discuss the organization's desire to partner with DCPS to help improve the number of high-performing schools and renovated buildings in the District.

Marenus identified school board members Thornhill, Ginsberg and Victor Reinoso and Ward 7 Councilman Vincent Gray among city officials with whom he has met to discuss EdBuild.

Thornhill, who held a senior management position at a now-defunct organization called D.C. Agenda, which was created by the Federal City Council, said she met with Marenus after she missed an initial meeting that EdBuild officials held privately with the entire school board. Thornhill said she could not recall when that meeting was held.

Ginsberg, who worked on education issues for council members Patterson and Evans before the mayor appointed her as the school board's newest member, said that school officials "first need to get the money" for fixing schools before discussing how EdBuild might be involved in helping to spend it.

Reinoso, an elected school board member who is the Federal City Council's director of education initiatives, did not return calls for comment on his role with EdBuild. Gray also did not return calls for comment.

What the partnership between the schools and EdBuild would look like is unclear at this time. EdBuild would not manage any public money, Marenus said. Rather, the nonprofit would bring more "capacity," people and private capital that would be targeted at educational programs and renovating facilities, he said.

Albert, the new EdBuild chief executive, said during the interview that making EdBuild a part of the school superintendent's Master Education Plan, which Janey has not completed, is one of many possible ways the partnership could be shaped.

"We'll take our lead from Dr. Janey and DCPS," Albert said.

Some local education activists -- including representatives of the 21st Century School Fund, DC Voice and Parents United -- met with Meranus during the summer and encouraged the new group's leaders to talk with parents and engage the community in their plans for DCPS, said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund. They have also spoken with Susan Cunningham, who previously directed operations for The SEED School, D.C.'s public charter urban boarding school, and who now works for EdBuild.

"They were good listeners," Filardo said.

Based on NewSchools Venture Fund's extensive experience in funding charter school projects from California to New York, Filardo said she was concerned that when EdBuild came to the District, it would again focus on charters rather than on traditional public schools.

"In the past their primary focus has been on charter schools, but I think they've realized that … they don't need to abandon the public school system," Filardo said.

Still, other school activists and some city officials said they remain concerned that EdBuild could fix up public school buildings so that they can be turned into charter schools. Public charter schools are nonprofit organizations that receive taxpayer dollars but are not under the oversight of D.C. Public Schools officials. They also are not required, unlike traditional public schools, to comply with many of the District's laws that govern such things as teacher certification, hiring of outside contractors and public disclosure.

"There is no attempt here to change DCPS into charter schools," Marenus said.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator