Op-Ed: The Council should wait on Old Hardy School lease vote

Since 2008, The Lab School of Washington has occupied the Old Hardy School building on Foxhall Road as a satellite to its main campus on Reservoir Road. The Lab School serves students with learning disabilities in the District, providing an exemplary education and other services. In the near future, the Lab School’s lease will come to an end, and legislation was introduced by the Mayor this March to lease the Old Hardy School to the Lab School for at least another 15 years.

While acknowledging the exemplary service the Lab School provides, the Council should wait to move forward with consideration of this proposed lease. Each of the public schools in Ward 3 is overenrolled or will be overenrolled soon; multiple projections of population growth in the Ward suggest that overcrowding is only going to get worse. My office has been working with parents, school advocates, and DCPS to identify solutions to the overcrowding problem, including providing recommendations to DCPS through a working group that convened throughout 2017. DCPS has promised to take the working group’s recommendations into account and issue a plan to address overcrowding in early 2018.

One suggestion from the working group is using the Old Hardy School to ease over-enrollment in Ward 3 – specifically at nearby Key Elementary school. It is quite unclear whether the Old Hardy School is large enough to significantly ease area overcrowding, but the space could be one part of a broader solution. Some have suggested that the school could be used as an early-childhood education campus, or as a ninth grade academy to ease overcrowding at Wilson. We cannot know what possibilities exist for the space until we have a comprehensive analysis of alternative, public uses for the space—which DCPS has yet to provide.

Not having an analysis of possible uses for the Old Hardy School not only makes it more difficult for the Council to assess whether a lease with the Lab School is the best use—lacking that analysis runs counter to requirements under District law. Under the code, legislation to sell or lease District-owned property must be presented to the community for feedback, and the Mayor must submit legislation to the Council saying there is no viable public use for the property. However, the legislation to re-lease the Old Hardy School to Lab exempts itself from those requirements. This means that there has been no current opportunity for residents to provide feedback on how the property should be used, and no clear statement that DCPS cannot use the space.  The last time the Council had a hearing regarding this space was prior to DCPS redrawing the District’s school boundaries. We were told that boundary changes would address Ward 3 overcrowding. We were also told that the overcrowding was just a “bubble” and that the numbers would stabilize. We now see that neither was true. Thus, circumstances have changed, and DCPS must come before the Council again to explain why it has no use for the Old Hardy School today.

In turn, in the spring, we expect the release of the District’s Master Facilities Plan (MFP)—a report that will assess the District’s school facilities and identify any needed facility updates or changes. Part of the MFP report will be new enrollment forecasts, as well as a broad analysis of DCPS facilities to assess whether our available school space is sufficient to meet expected enrollment. This assessment will be essential in determining whether and how DCPS could use the Old Hardy School. It simply doesn’t make sense for the Council to vote now on the Old Hardy School lease, when waiting just a few months would equip the Council with this key information.

My decision to seek delay on the lease legislation is in no way intended to disadvantage the Lab School.  I applaud their work and understand the school’s interest in securing this lease as soon as possible, especially since the school wants to make significant capital improvements to the building. However, The Lab School’s lease expires in 2023, and I do not see why we need to rush this vote before we have all of the information.  Ultimately, the Lab School’s occupancy of the Old Hardy School may remain the best use of the facility, and I would be happy to see Lab School stay there. But the Council cannot make a responsible decision on this lease with the limited information that it has today.

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