washingtonpost.com  > Education > District

D.C. Schools Revisit Capital Spending

Board Weighs Scaled-Back Plan

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page B01

Amy Friend was one of many parents and community residents who spent years crafting plans to transform the 74-year-old Alice Deal Junior High School in Northwest Washington into a state-of-the-art middle school.

They envisioned an overhaul that would go well beyond fixing the electrical system (which constantly blows fuses), correcting temperature variations (which can make it too hot in some parts of the building and, at the same time, too cold in others) and repairing leaks. Working with an architect, they devised plans to convert the building into a middle school in 2006, with 50 percent more classroom space created by moving the gym and cafeteria into two new wings.

Last winter, physical education instructor Ron Jenkins and Principal Sondra Legall looked at a makeshift system for handling a leak at Deal Junior High. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

District Schools: Superintendent Clifford B. Janey was online to discuss his new term and plans to improve the D.C. school system.
Audio: Janey Outlines Vision
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But Superintendent Clifford B. Janey is proposing to scale back that and several other school modernization projects, leaving many parents, teachers and students across the city frustrated and disappointed.

"We feel our kids should be in schools as good as the schools outside the District," said Friend, who has two children at Deal. "The whole thing is a sad situation."

The school board is scheduled to vote tomorrow on the so-called Option D proposal, a dramatic departure from the $3.5 billion, 20-year capital improvement plan from 2000 that sought to bring the system's largely World War II-era facilities into the 21st century by replacing some deteriorating buildings, gutting and rebuilding others and constructing additions.

Janey has said the new plan is necessary because the school system is receiving less money than expected from the D.C. Council; school officials spent more than anticipated on the initial projects; and many schools are in urgent need of repair.

The proposal would redirect $640.8 million over six years to basic renovations from wholesale overhauls. For Deal, it would mean getting $22 million instead of $34 million -- enough to replace the antiquated heating and electrical systems but not to build a cafeteria, gymnasium or classrooms.

Officials of the 21st Century School Fund, which advocates for school construction projects, and of some District schools said they support the plan because it would spread capital improvement funds to more schools, shortening the waiting time for projects that were at the bottom of the list.

"A wide range of schools will get things done to their buildings instead of a few schools getting a lot done," said June Confer, business manager at Shepherd Elementary School in Northwest. Under the original plan, she added, "we kept getting pushed back and back and back."

At last week's board meeting, however, three of seven members present said the proposal represented reneging on their original plan.

Janey is developing a "master education plan" that would set priorities as the scaled-down capital improvement plan was prepared. Still, he faulted previous city and school leaders for causing the current crisis. "For all of us, Option D is a referendum on the lack of leadership to address the schools that look like hellholes," he said at last week's meeting, drawing applause from board members and the audience.

The D.C. Council, which sets the bottom-line figure in the school board's construction budget, has not taken a position on Option D.

But council members are demanding accountability in the school construction program to ensure that cost overruns don't plague the program as in the past. Examples of projects with cost overruns include the modernization of Barnard Elementary School in Northwest, which increased from $12 million to $23 million; and the construction of McKinley Technical Senior High School in Northeast, which rose from $45 million to $73 million.

Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who chairs the panel's education committee, has introduced legislation that would establish an education trust to help finance and manage school construction projects.

"The idea is to take advantage of the building expertise in the private sector," Patterson said. She added that the new agency would be able to draw funds from private sources that are now reluctant to contribute to the school system because of its history of mismanaging money.

But some school board members point to the takeover of the construction program in the 1990s by the Army Corps of Engineers, which has been blamed for some of the cost overruns, and they bristle at the idea of giving up authority. They say they are seeking a portion of the D.C. government's cumulative $1.2 billion surplus and looking at creative ways to raise construction money -- including selling some school property to developers.

Enrollment at regular public schools has fallen from 68,015 three years ago to 61,710 now, and the school board also is looking at leasing underused buildings to charter schools to raise money.

"Just because we pass this doesn't mean we aren't going to look at ways to bring in more funding," said board member Tommy Wells (District 3).

School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said the board also is serious about holding school administrators accountable. Principals have long complained about a maintenance staff that ignored complaints about leaky roofs, poor plumbing and other problems or performed shoddy repairs. Failing to do minor repairs, Cafritz said, has led to major expenses.

"Part of Dr. Janey's responsibility is to deliver to the school board a world-class business system, which would include facilities management," she said, adding that the board in the fall will evaluate him on any progress he has made. "If he doesn't do that, he has to go."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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