Martin Welles Testimony – Deputy Mayor for Education & District of Columbia Public Charter School Board – Performance Oversight – February 15, 2019

Public Testimony of Martin R. Welles, Esq. For

PERFORMANCE OVERSIGHT HEARING: 

COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION & COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE

Deputy Mayor for Education

District of Columbia Public Charter School Board

Friday, February 15, 2019

10:00 a.m., Hearing Room 120, John A. Wilson Building

 

Good Morning Co-Chairman Mendelson and Grosso, members of the Education Committee and Committee of the Whole.

My name is Martin Welles and I’m a parent of 3 children who attend Hardy Middle School.  My children have also attended Amidon-Bowen Elementary School and Appletree Charter School.  I am an active volunteer and serve on the Jefferson Middle School SIT (school modernization team), Amidon-Bowen and Payne Elementary LSAT teams, and on the Board of Directors of Hardy PTO as Vice-President Civic Engagement, the Board of Directors of Near Southeast Community Partners as Treasurer, and on the Board of Directors of Capitol Hill Little League as Treasurer to name just of few of my volunteer activities. I do have a full-time “day job” as well.

My comments today will be directed toward both the DME and the Charter School Board:

Deputy Mayor of Education Paul Kihn:

First of all, I would like to welcome DME Kihn to DC government and thank him for his hard work since arriving.  Many of you know that Near Southeast Community Partners (NSCP) originated the “Feed the Feeder” series – a Principals Roundtable and Networking event to strengthen our neighborhood feeder school patterns.  In DME Kihn’s first week on the job, he attended our Ward 6 Feed the Feeder event and was one of the first to arrive and last to leave.  He spent the entire night meeting and speaking with teachers and parents.  I heard many positive comments from attendees and they were impressed with his willingness to listen.  When offered the microphone to provide some words, he said he was just there to listen.  I’m not sure I would ever pass up a microphone – so I don’t know what to make of that.

On another occasion, after reviewing the facts and understanding the situation, DME Kihn honored a commitment made by the previous administration.  It was the right decision and put an end to a contentious situation.  In short, DME Kihn’s approach has been reasoned and informed.

However, I did attend another event in which DME Kihn was a panel speaker on “Equity in Education.”  His presentation and remarks were focused on the District of Columbia, but I did find the narrative conveyed to be a little off-putting.  He articulated data that pit one Ward against another.  He seemed to convey that a Ward that was showing high scores, was somehow to blame for another Ward’s low test scores.  I walked away thinking that his comments seem to suggest that a high achieving Ward, rather than being celebrated, should be punished for being successful,  I would like to see excellence celebrated and invigorated, regardless of what Ward it exists.  Making every Ward’s neighborhood schools strong and desirable should be the priority, but it should not be a zero sum game.  There is room for growth and excellence everywhere in DC.

There are several hot button issues that I will require attention in the near future:

Amidon-Bowen:  Developers are trying to get a zoning variance to build a 50-foot tall, 32-foot wide, 40 unit dormitory to house actors and interns.  The lot is restricted to 3 stories, but more importantly the want relief from property line setbacks because the lot is only 40 feet wide.  The proposed building will be right on top of the playground and become a constant source of noise complaints.  Additionally, granting a zoning variance to the developer will waive the District of Columbia’s property rights to add capacity to the thriving Amidon-Bowen school in a neighborhood where 18,000 housing units are slated for development.  The developer has submitted a bad plan, and neither the DME nor DC Council should support it.

Hardy Middle School – Science Teacher Position:

The 7th grade students at Hardy Middle School have been without a permanent science teacher for almost the entire year.  Due to a series of unfortunate events, a substitute had to come in and teach.  Even though it was doubtful the permanent teacher would return quickly, the position was encumbered and that prevented hiring a dedicated science teacher.  DCPS and the DME’s office need to figure out a way to attract a permanent “substitute” teacher, and double encumber the position.  It would be nice if the DME could step in with a special budgetary authorization to double encumber a position so that when, and if, a teacher returns, the long term substitute is not forced to leave and so that two teachers could make up for lost ground.  An offer was finally made to a full-time science teacher, but I learned yesterday that the new hire was not able to start.  This is a serious problem, not only specific to Hardy Middle School 7th grade, but likely throughout the school system.

Hardy Middle School Capacity:  Hardy received a 5 star rating and that has certainly increased the desire of families to attend Hardy.  The 3rd floor of the building contains the Fillmore Arts Center.  As Hardy continues to grow, the need for classroom space becomes greater.  It is time to start shrinking the footprint of Fillmore Arts Center at Hardy Middle School and find a new location for them.  The first step would be for the Fillmore Arts Center to vacate classrooms that are in the 6th grade hallway.  These classrooms could be used for 6th graders so that they do not have to run up and down stairs to get to their classes on time.  It is also my understanding that the number of schools busing to Fillmore has reduced due to expansion and modernization at their own schools.   Fillmore offers a great curriculum, but it is only available to relatively few students anyway, and Hardy needs the space.

Thank you DME Kihn. Thank you to the Council for listening to my comments I look forward to continuing to work with you.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CHARTER SCHOOL BOARD

I’m not sure the taxpayer of the District of Columbia is getting what they bargained for with the Charter School sector.  The reason I am unsure is because Charter Schools are not subjected to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or open meeting laws.  Therefore, there is not any real way to know how much of our taxpayer dollars are spent on teacher salaries, benefits, building leases, and administration.  We do not know to whom the Charter Schools are beholden, if anyone.  I would like the Charter School Board to contractually require Charter School operators, in exchange for the $100s of millions of taxpayer dollars, to hold open meetings, to operate transparently at the same level as DCPS, and to be accountable to their customers – the parents and students who attend and the taxpayers who fund their enterprise through the FOIA.

The time for reform is ripe.  Of the 17 schools that received a 5 Star rating – 12 were DCPS schools and only 5 were charters.  The promise of Charters was that through innovation and freedom from regulation, they would be able to provide superior education to our children.  With the number of Charter School closings – either through abandonment or loss of license – it is clear that promises made during the application promises were hollow.  Granted, closing a low performing Charter school may be a way to instill fear among operators, but it really has an adverse impact on families who are now left without a familiar place, a familiar teacher, or a familiar peer group.

What was a promise of niche education, has turned in to mass education.  The Charter School model has now become to replicate DCPS and all its great offerings.  The innovation and methodologies that were promised 20 years ago materialized in very few schools.  And while there are several excellence Charter Schools, I’m not sure that the bulk of the sector has lived up to the hype and expectation.

I implore this Council and the Charter School Board to adopt transparency and compliance with the FOIA and open meeting laws. It can be done on a contractual basis, it doesn’t necessarily have to be legislative.

Sincerely,
Martin R. Welles, Esq.

Parent of 3 Children at Hardy Middle School

Vice President, Hardy Middle School PTA

Member, Student Assignment and Boundary Committee

Member, Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Cabinet

Board of Directors, NSCP – Treasurer

Board of Directors, CHLL – Treasurer

 

LL.M. Georgetown University Law Center – Taxation

LL.M. George Washington Law School with Highest Honors – Litigation

J.D. Loyola New Orleans – International Law

M.A. Loyola New Orleans – Communications

B.A. Viterbo University

A.A. University of Wisconsin – La Crosse

 

 

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