Realistic Plan Sought for D.C. Schools
Monday, November 14, 2005
Sterling Henry III is more than two months into his freshman year at Cardozo Senior High School in Northwest Washington, but he says his shock at conditions inside the building has yet to wear off.
Large chunks of plaster are missing from numerous walls and ceilings. Many urinals in the restrooms are broken. Only about two of the more than dozen water fountains are working. The gym is so small that the Cardozo Clerks must play their home games on the basketball court at nearby Roosevelt Senior High. And the school's swimming pool has been closed for 11 years because of cracks.
"I expected the school to be cleaner," Sterling said. "It makes me feel they don't care."
The deterioration at Cardozo is more the rule than the exception in the D.C. school system. After years of deferred maintenance, funding cuts and mismanagement of capital programs, most of its 147 schools are in desperate need of repair and renovation. The buildings average 73 years old, and many have leaky roofs, faulty plumbing, dimly lighted halls and air-handling systems that leave classrooms too cold in winter and too warm in spring and summer.
Everyone agrees that the needs are glaring. But a D.C. Council member's proposal to generate $1 billion in school renovation funds over the next decade through various tax increases has revived concerns about the scope and cost of a major renovation project.
Among the issues being debated by city officials, business leaders and education activists: How can the school system ensure that a bigger construction budget won't lead to cost overruns like those that plagued some of the earlier capital projects? What is the right balance between upgrading basic infrastructure and spending more to create state-of-the-art media centers and science labs? What is the appropriate scope of renovations in a system that is losing enrollment every year? And what claim do the city's fast-growing public charter schools have on the revamped buildings?
Seeing an opportunity to broaden support for her legislation, council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) agreed last week to postpone a vote on the measure until Dec. 5 so that school officials and the business community could discuss those issues and work together to try to produce a realistic and cost-effective modernization plan.
In 2000, the school board adopted a $3.5 billion plan that called for all schools to be upgraded over the next 20 years. But that program soon ran into financial trouble, both because the council's annual appropriations were smaller than expected and because several of the initial projects came in over budget. This spring, Superintendent Clifford B. Janey persuaded the board to approve a scaled-back plan that emphasized basic repairs over wholesale rebuilding so that more schools could get immediate help with urgent problems.
Patterson's bill, which would provide the additional $1 billion by raising the city's parking, cigarette and commercial real estate taxes and delaying an income tax cut, has given many students, teachers and parents reason to hope that the timetable for renovating their school will be accelerated.
"This bill is long overdue," said Janey, who expressed disgust at the condition of the schools when he took office in September 2004. "It's an opportunity through legislation to finally call the right question."
At the same time, Janey and other school officials said the boost in construction funds does not mean they would go back to the approach of 2000. Instead of putting every school on the list for modernization, they plan to trim costs by consolidating schools. Janey intends to release a plan in January outlining the system's educational needs, followed by recommendations in April on which schools should be closed.
An independent study released this year found that the school system, whose enrollment has declined from 69,000 to about 59,000 over the past five years, needs only 10 million of its 16 million square feet of space and that 37 schools are operating at 65 percent or less of their capacity.