By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer
Since 2008, the Lab School of Washington has been leasing D.C. Public Schools’ former Hardy Elementary at 1550 Foxhall Road NW, and the private special-needs school has housed its elementary program there.
But a quick D.C. Council decision to allow that lease to be extended has drawn some complaints that the city needs that property to relieve crowding on nearby public schools. Critics also object to the council’s abrupt action at its last meeting of 2016 after allowing the plan to sit dormant for over three years, reducing their ability to weigh in on the proposal.
At its Dec. 20 meeting, the council voted 11-2 to approve emergency legislation from at-large member David Grosso that authorizes Mayor Muriel Bowser to enter into lease negotiations with the Lab School, which serves 79 students at the Old Hardy campus and close to 300 nearby at 4759 Reservoir Road NW. About a quarter of The Lab School’s current students were sent there by D.C. Public Schools. The Lab School’s current lease runs until 2023, but Grosso said an extension would allow the private school to invest more than $2.5 million in urgent repairs and maintenance.
“While the old Hardy School works well for the Lab School, it is in dire need of improvements,” Grosso said: Students have to wear coats inside during the winter because the heating system doesn’t work, and teachers struggle to talk over the loud air-conditioning system during the warmer months — presenting a particular challenge to students with auditory disabilities. The windows are also 30 years old and leak frequently, he said. In an interview, head of school Katherine Schantz added that the building also is out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and its bathrooms are in poor condition.
Bowser hasn’t yet reviewed the bill but will do so in the coming weeks, spokesperson Susana Castillo told The Current Tuesday.
The proposal to transfer the building to the Lab School first surfaced in 2013. Following a council hearing in October of that year, then-mayor Vincent Gray withdrew the legislation in December over concerns that a planned redrawing of the city’s school boundaries could reveal a need for the old Hardy building as public school space.
Since then, little progress on that determination or the terms of the lease was visible to the public, though Lab School staff stayed in touch with council members, according to Schantz. This past fall, Bowser told members of the Palisades Citizens Association that a public comment process would be initiated for the old Hardy effort, according to the association’s president Nick Keenan. But thus far, no such process has emerged — Grosso’s bill was introduced on Dec. 19 and passed a day later.
At the Dec. 20 legislative meeting, several council members said they’d received a flood of emails from concerned community members in the 24 hours since the bill appeared on the agenda. Ward 3’s Mary Cheh said she believes delaying the process of transferring the land to the Lab School would only further impede its efforts to improve the property for the benefit of its students. Jack Evans of Ward 2 concurred.
“It should have been done three years ago, it should have been done two years ago. It needs to be done now,” Evans said. “I think we have to move with a sense of urgency to get this thing done. The longer the wait, the worse shape the building gets.”
The two dissenting votes on the bill came from at-large members Elissa Silverman and Robert White, who both said they didn’t see the need to rush the bill through, given the outstanding questions about the old Hardy building’s viability as a public school.
“I don’t think most of us could say definitively if we’re going to need to use that school for swing space or another need,” White said. “This may very well be the best use for this school, but I think it does require another hearing and I don’t believe it’s an emergency.”
Ward 3 State Board of Education member Ruth Wattenberg continues to believe that the city ought to make use of the old Hardy school for public school space, especially given the increasing population in the area. After seeing Grosso’s legislation on the council’s agenda, she sent a Dec. 19 email urging her constituents to contact their council members in opposition.
“We need the capacity. We need space,” Wattenberg said in an interview. “If not there, where else?”
Parents at Key Elementary, located at 5001 Dana Place NW in the Palisades, share Wattenberg’s concerns. In an email to The Current, Elizabeth Wise, co-president of Key’s PTA and a parent of two second-graders, wrote that it would be “short-sighted” to extend the lease. Key’s boundaries extend to the Foxhall neighborhood where the Hardy building and adjoining city recreation center are located.
“I continue to ask, where is the long term thinking and planning as it pertains to DCPS and future space for our students?” Wise wrote. “If our public schools continue to accelerate in desirability it is imperative that a five or ten year plan and budget be developed and adhered to in order to provide adequate facilities for them.”
Though previous council discussions of the transfer to the Lab School suggested a 50-year lease, Grosso stressed at the council meeting that the bill doesn’t specify a lease of that duration, and the mayor could opt for a shorter lease of 20 or 25 years. Still, critics like Keenan want more opportunities to have their voices heard, and he feels there’s still time to reverse course.
“The pressure is going to be on the mayor before they enter into the lease to have some sort of public process on this,” Keenan said. “We could conceivably do that in 90 days if the mayor really wanted to do this.”
Meanwhile, the Lab School maintains that a long-term lease will help ease the burden on students. “We want to invest and make it a higher quality learning environment,” Schantz said.
This article appears in the Jan. 4 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.