“This feels a little bit surreal,” Head of School Russell Shaw said during a Feb. 9 meeting as he faced a Zoom screen of Tenleytown residents and the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), a hyper-local governing body that advises D.C. agencies. The commissioners scolded Shaw, the Founding Executive Director of the Center for Civic Engagement, Barbara Eghan, Director of Innovation and Technology Tim Lyons and other school administrators for not filing the enrollment report that showed that the school was overenrolled for the 2021-2022 school year.
The topic of contention at the meeting was GDS’ violation of its zoning order and agreement with the ANC by overenrolling approximately 50 students two years in a row, according to a resolution passed by the ANC. The school then violated its agreement again by neglecting to file the required annual enrollment report. ANC commissioners addressed the violation during their Feb. 9 meeting, expressing their frustration with the school’s administration.
In late October, Shaw was preparing with the school’s zoning lawyer for his presentation at the Nov. 16 ANC meeting. The lawyer asked to look at last year’s traffic and enrollment reports, and the two realized the enrollment report had not been submitted to the ANC. Shaw called ANC Chair Jonathan Bender and set up a meeting.
In order to approve its construction for the unified campus, GDS and the ANC came in 2017 to an agreement called the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which requires GDS to take measures to decrease traffic.
Starting in the 2020-2021 school year, GDS was permitted to enroll 1075 students. If the school were to meet its traffic goals for two consecutive years, it could increase enrollment to 1125. After the fifth year of the agreement, the school would face legal consequences if it exceeded its trip counts.
The school measures traffic goals by “trips,” each time a car drives on or off campus. The number of trips is recorded during the peak hours of morning, early afternoon and late afternoon.
According to Chris Oster, GDS’ transportation marketing associate, the school failed to meet its trip limits in the morning and early afternoon slots in the May 2021 audit. In the fall 2022 audit, it met its trip count in the morning and early afternoon but failed the late afternoon count.
The school increased enrollment to 1119 for the 2021-2022 school year and to 1124 for the 2022-2023 school year without achieving its trip counts for two consecutive years, in violation of the MOU, according to the 2022 enrollment report filed with the ANC.
In 2020, when lower and middle school students were in a hybrid learning model and only coming to campus a few days a week, students weren’t required to carpool and after-school activities were on pause. “This is really the first year that GDS and the neighborhood are seeing what this agreement looks like,” said Oster.
Additionally, administrators were adapting to COVID and the new unified campus during the 2021-2022 school year. “We had a lot on our plate and amidst that we dropped the ball,” Shaw told the Bit.
Shaw also said staff turnover was another administrative challenge. He noted that the director of enrollment management changed from Barbara Eghan to Chris Levy in late 2021.
GDS has always admitted more students than its class size because not all admitted students will choose to enroll. According to Barbara Eghan, former director of enrollment management and financial aid and one of the administrators ensuring that GDS is in compliance with the BZA, the yield increased from 65% pre-pandemic to 80% for students admitted for the 2021-2022 school year.
Although he realized that the school was overenrolled, Shaw said that he didn’t realize that it needed to be reported to the ANC. “When I thought about our ANC, I thought about traffic; that was my wiring,” Shaw said.
But Bender and other commissioners still have questions outstanding. “It’s very hard to see how this could have happened,” he told the Bit. American University and Georgetown University were overenrolled similarly to GDS because of the pandemic, but they disclosed the violations to their respective ANCs. He said that, if the school had alerted the ANC after the first year, “we would have worked together and there would not have been a second year of overenrollment.”
Bender also alleges that GDS has not filed sufficient traffic reports to the District Department of Transportation (DDOT).
“We have filed our reports with DDOT,” Oster told the Bit. “I have receipts of us sending that report,” he added.
Jeff Blum, chair of the GDS board, told the Bit that he was “troubled” by the manner in which the Feb. 9 meeting was held. “The chair presented a 20- to 25-minute indictment of GDS,” he said. “Some of his points were true and correct while others were not,” he said.
Blum said that it is difficult “to watch the ANC try to drag GDS through the mud when I know how much effort the school has made over the last five years to live up to its obligations under the agreement.”
“It feels to me like we were deceived,” ANC secretary Amy Hall said during the meeting.
“I’m just really disappointed by the whole situation,” said commissioner and GDS parent Ali Gianinno. She said that the school has made “major errors,” although she appreciates the school as a parent. Gianinno abstained from voting on the resolution but said that she supports Bender’s decision to “hold GDS accountable.”
During the meeting, Elisabeth Leamy, a Tenleytown resident, called GDS’ behavior “cheating.”
The school and commissioners have been negotiating what action to take. GDS originally proposed financing services to the community, such as extending the bike lane GDS built along 42nd Street or hiring an additional traffic officer at Janney Elementary School.
ANC commissioners Bender and Tom Quinn recommended that the school develop the former Metro chiller plant on the corner of Ellicott and 42nd Street, which GDS owns, into deeply affordable housing units. Bender said the affordable housing would be “consistent with GDS’ commitment to social justice.” GDS concluded that the project would be too expensive and cost $16 million.
Shaw would prefer an accommodation that is relevant to the increased traffic in the neighborhood, and the housing project wouldn’t fulfill the school’s mission of education, he said.
Bender hopes that GDS will admit that “they missed the mark by a lot.” Additionally, he believes that the costs for Shaw’s proposed measures don’t make up for increased revenues from additional tuition. Shaw disputed Bender’s claim that GDS was profiting off the additional tuition due to overenrollment, saying that the school is a non-profit and invests money from tuition into students’ education.
The River School, another independent school in D.C. that shares the same ANC with GDS, is in the process of building a new campus at 4220 Nebraska Avenue, just under a mile away from the GDS campus. The school is negotiating a similar agreement with the ANC, using the same lawyer as GDS.
In response to the violation, GDS has internally tightened its administrative oversight. Now, Eghan and Director of Innovation and Technology Tim Lyons are updating reporting mechanisms, educating families on their traffic obligations and making sure the school decreases enrollment to ensure that GDS is in compliance with the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA), the independent body that approved the unified campus. Lyons was selected because of his background in real estate.
The ANC has passed a resolution stating that GDS has violated its zoning order and MOU and authorizing commissioners to file with the BZA for legal recourse if the two bodies don’t come to an agreement. But the final consequences for the school have yet to be determined.
Bender said that his and Shaw’s relationship has been “excellent, cordial” and trusting, but that “trust has been broken in a really kind of severe way,” he said.
“We made a mistake,” Shaw said. “We’re a human institution that made an administrative mistake during extraordinary circumstances. And that, over time, I fully expect that the school will have a great relationship with Tenleytown.”
CLARIFICATION (March 1): A previous version of this article said that the ANC recommended that GDS spend $16 million to build affordable housing units. It was GDS, not the ANC, that concluded that the project would cost $16 million.