Viewpoint: Council isn’t ready to act on old Hardy School lease

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The former Hardy Elementary on Foxhall Road has been leased to Lab since 2008. The D.C. Council recently authorized lease extension negotiations. Photo: Brian Kapur/The Current

By Mary Cheh

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

While acknowledging the Lab School’s exemplary service, the D.C. Council should wait to move forward with consideration of this proposed lease. Each of the public schools in Ward 3 is over-enrolled or will be 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 D.C. Public Schools officials to identify solutions to the overcrowding problem, including providing recommendations to the school system through a working group that convened throughout 2017. The school system has promised to issue a plan 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. It is quite unclear whether the old Hardy School is large enough to ease area overcrowding significantly, 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 the school system has yet to provide.

The absence of 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 D.C. Public Schools cannot use the space.

The last time the council had a hearing regarding this space was prior to 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 the school system 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, which will identify any needed facility updates. This report will include new enrollment forecasts and assess whether our available space is sufficient to meet expected enrollment. This assessment will be essential in determining whether and how D.C. Public Schools 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 its 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.

Mary Cheh represents Ward 3 on the D.C. Council.