By Mark Lieberman
Current Staff Writer
The Lab School of Washington won’t get a lease extension at the old Hardy School property before the public has had a chance to weigh in, Mayor Muriel Bowser said last week.
The D.C. Council hastily passed emergency legislation last month that authorized the mayor to begin negotiations on extending the Lab School’s lease for 20 to 25 years. The private school for students with special needs has been operating out of the building at 1550 Foxhall Road NW since 2008.
At-large D.C. Council member David Grosso, who introduced the legislation, said he wanted to ensure that Lab could begin $2.5 million of capital improvements to the site, which has experienced increasing issues with heating, air conditioning and sanitation in recent years. Lab School officials said that their current lease term, which runs only until 2023, is too short for them to carry out costly renovations. But some community stakeholders say overcrowding in Ward 3 schools means that the city should seriously consider restoring the old Hardy to public education use.
Bowser declined to sign the legislation, sending it back to the council. In a Jan. 9 letter to Chairman Phil Mendelson, the mayor criticized the council’s procedure in handling the matter. Ordinarily, the executive branch initiates a process to dispose of public property and selects a recipient — in this case, the council indicated its support for the executive branch to negotiate specifically with the Lab School.
“Although I am returning the bill unsigned, my action should not be interpreted as opposition to the disposition of the Hardy School to the Lab School,” Bowser’s letter adds. The mayor said she has directed city agencies to begin discussions with the Lab School on the possibility of an extension; if an agreement is reached, she’ll transmit it to the council. At that point, the council would hold a public hearing on the matter before a final vote — a step critics said the council should have taken before its vote.
Grosso, along with Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh and Ward 2’s Jack Evans, argued last month that the Lab School needs the extended lease as soon as possible to commence its repairs. In an interview Tuesday, Grosso said he thinks delaying the lease extension is “a waste of taxpayer dollars and a waste of our time.” He met with the mayor after she returned the bill last week, and he now believes that the mayor’s decision was motivated by “a political debate that’s happening that is outside of the Hardy School” — an ongoing battle between the council and the mayor over proper delegation of authority.
Grosso said he has tried numerous times since 2013, with no success, to move the Lab School issue forward, including a provision in a 2016 budget bill that could have accelerated lease discussions. He continues to believe that last month’s emergency legislation was necessary to improve the surroundings for Lab School students.
“I believe wholeheartedly that the government takes too long to get stuff done,” Grosso said. “Whenever I can push the envelope to get stuff done that I think is right, I’m going to do that.”
A number of parents at Key Elementary and other Ward 3 residents still believe the old Hardy building ought to be used as public school space to relieve overcrowding in other neighborhood schools. Those critics disputed the hasty legislation and argued that they should have been able to weigh in before the council vote.
Grosso isn’t convinced, though. He believes city agencies have already proved conclusively that the old Hardy building wouldn’t be useful for resolving school issues elsewhere, and that demand for Ward 3’s schools will ease in time. “If we do a good job improving the schools across the city and modernizing schools across the city and increasing the standard of education across the city, there would not be an overcrowding situation over in [Ward 3],” Grosso said.
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. Little progress on that determination or the terms of the lease was visible to the public until last month, when the council approved the bill on a vote of 11-2.
Grosso said Tuesday that he believes the public has had ample opportunity to voice opinions. At December’s legislative meeting, Cheh pointed to that 2013 public hearing as an example of adequate community outreach. In a statement last week, though, Cheh told The Current that she’s now looking forward to another public process.
“In a sense, I welcome the Mayor’s action because there was some concern that, even though there was a hearing on this matter a few years ago, people wanted to be heard again,” Cheh wrote. “I will await the Mayor sending over a resolution, at which point we can hold another hearing on this matter and determine how to move forward.”
Mendelson could not be reached for comment in time for publication.
Critics of the council legislation also say that it circumvented the legally mandated procedure for declaring a school building surplus. According to a 2014 government document, the law requires that the deputy mayor for education, Jennifer Niles, give priority to public charter applicants for surplus space, and that she assess goals for the site with community input before sending her recommendation to the council.
Elizabeth Wise, co-president of Key’s PTA, told The Current that she’s hopeful that the mayor’s decision will allow the deputy mayor to effectively complete that process. Wise isn’t certain that the old Hardy building itself would be suitable for a public school, but she thinks it’s worth considering building a new school on the Foxhall Road site.
Wise also thinks the mayor’s approach to the issue far outclasses what she describes as the council’s “dead-of-the-night, hope-no-one-will-notice type action.”
Palisades Citizens Association president Nick Keenan, who has been following the issue since discussions of a Lab School lease extension began and fizzled in 2013, said he’s pleased with the mayor’s decision to involve the public once again. “It’s given me hope that we can come up with some sort of solution that serves everybody’s needs,” he said.
This article appears in the Jan. 18 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.