District of Columbia Charter Schools:

Criteria for Awarding School Buildings to Charter Schools Needs Additional Transparency

GAO-11-263: Published: Mar 9, 2011. Publicly Released: Mar 9, 2011.

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Almost 40 percent of all public school students in the District of Columbia (D.C. or District) were enrolled in charter schools in the 2010-11 school year. The D.C. School Reform Act established the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) for the purpose of authorizing and overseeing charter schools. Congress required GAO to conduct a management evaluation of PCSB. GAO addresses the following: (1) the mechanisms in place to review the performance and operations of PCSB, (2) the procedures and processes PCSB has in place to oversee and monitor the operations of D.C. charter schools, and (3) the resources available to charter schools for their operations and facilities. GAO interviewed officials from D.C. agencies and 7 charter schools and reviewed oversight procedures for PCSB and charter schools. GAO also reviewed the processes for providing resources to charter schools and analyzed data on these resources.

Although the Mayor appoints members to the board, PCSB has operated outside of the control of the Mayor and the Chancellor of traditional D.C. public schools; however, several agencies review PCSB's performance and operations. The D.C. Council holds annual hearings to examine PCSB's organization, personnel, budget, programs, policies, contracting, and procurement. The Office of the Chief Financial Officer oversees PCSB's budget development, operations, and financial reporting and reviews PCSB's monthly financial reports and year-end audits. Other offices monitor compliance with applicable laws and may conduct investigations or audits of PCSB when issues arise. PCSB launched its new performance accountability system to oversee the District's charter schools in school year 2009-2010. However, in October 2010, just weeks before the results were to be released, PCSB decided to withhold the results from the public due to concerns about data accuracy and plans to use the data collected to further test and develop the system. The new system, called the Performance Management Framework (PMF), is designed to assess charter schools using common measures for academic performance, compliance with applicable laws, and financial management, among other things. As it implements the new system for the 2010-2011 school year, PCSB is currently collaborating with charter schools to develop and revise the system, and has more recently begun providing more detailed information to charter schools about how it will revise the system. D.C. charter schools may receive funding from local, federal, and private sources for their operations and facilities and also have access to other District resources, including former D.C. school buildings; however, the criteria for awarding former school buildings to charter schools could be more transparent. The primary source of support for charter schools is local per-pupil funding, which is allocated to charter schools on the same basis as all public schools in the District. Charter schools also receive a per-pupil allotment from the District for facilities. In addition to local funds, charter schools are eligible to receive federal formula funding, federal discretionary grants, and private funding, such as foundation grants and commercial loans to purchase or renovate school buildings. To date, charter schools lease or will lease about half of the former D.C. school buildings that have been made available pursuant to a provision in D.C. law that provides charter schools with a right of first offer for these buildings. However, we found that the District does not include in its requests for offers all factors it may consider, such as economic development or other goals of the Mayor, when determining whether to accept or reject an offer. In addition, the District does not sufficiently document the basis for rejecting offers. Charter school officials and advocates expressed concern about the transparency and fairness in how the District makes decisions regarding former D.C. school buildings. GAO recommends that the Mayor of the District of Columbia direct the Department of Real Estate Services to disclose all factors considered in reviewing charter school offers for former D.C. school buildings and make available to schools, in writing, the reasons the offers were rejected. The District agreed with our recommendations and noted that the Department of Real Estate Services has already taken steps to improve the process for awarding former D.C. school buildings to charter schools.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The District concurred with our recommendation, stating that the Mayor instructed the D.C. Department of Real Estate (DRES) to ensure that Requests for Offer (RFO) clearly indicate all factors that may be considered by the selection panel. In October 2012, DRES dissolved and the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) assumed responsibility for the RFO process. DME made several changes to the RFO process. One change was including scoring criteria for evaluating offers considered by the selection panel. According to a DME official, it outlines desired uses for each reuse site and clearly details all of the data points used to render a decision to ensure it is meeting the needs of its students and the larger community and to increase transparency into the process. In addition, respondents to the RFO have the ability to attend a pre-submission meeting where they can ask questions about the scoring criteria. Potential respondents are also encouraged to request previous successful RFO offers to see how scores are tabulated. However, the scoring factors do not include additional factors outside the stated criteria, such as "community development" as we specified in our report. The DME official noted that in cases where a factor such as "community development" could be considered, the offeror is made known of that factor.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the criteria for evaluating offers from charter schools to use surplus D.C. school buildings are clear and the reasons for denial of offers are communicated, the Mayor of the District of Columbia should direct the D.C. Department of Real Estate Services (DRES) to ensure the Request for Offers (RFO) on former D.C. school buildings clearly indicates all factors that may be considered by the selection panel.

    Agency Affected: District of Columbia: Executive Office of the Mayor

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The District concurred with our recommendation, stating that DRES has begun taking steps to improve documentation on why offers were rejected. This includes a more detailed memorandum on the evaluation of the offer based on the criteria listed in the RFO. The District also stated that it will ensure that charter schools are notified, in writing, of their opportunity to request a debriefing on the topic. In October 2012, DRES dissolved and the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) assumed responsibility for the RFO process. In FY15, DME reported that it had adjusted its practices to improve documentation on why offers were rejected, which includes informing offerers of the opportunity to request a briefing to obtain such information. DME now includes a more detailed memorandum on the evaluation of the offer based on the criteria listed in the RFO. Respondents that are not awarded are also notified, in writing, of their opportunity to request a debriefing on the topic. Respondents can request their scores and details about how the score was attained. At the debriefing, respondents are given an opportunity to explore how their particular offer missed points or did not meet the needs outlined in the RFO.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the criteria for evaluating offers from charter schools to use surplus D.C. school buildings are clear and the reasons for denial of offers are communicated, the Mayor of the District of Columbia should direct DRES to inform charter schools, in writing, of the reasons their offers were rejected or of the opportunity to request a briefing to obtain such information.

    Agency Affected: District of Columbia: Executive Office of the Mayor

 

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