Lew Is on the Job, but He Faces a Daunting Task

Gillermo Vasquez, above, and Rudolfo Vasquez, left, both of Meridian Construction in Gaithersburg, apply fresh coats of paint at Margaret Murray Washington Career High School.
Gillermo Vasquez, above, and Rudolfo Vasquez, left, both of Meridian Construction in Gaithersburg, apply fresh coats of paint at Margaret Murray Washington Career High School. (James M. Thresher - The Washington Post)
By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007

Allen Y. Lew said he continues to be shocked as he travels from school to school in the District, a city now dedicated to pouring $2.3 billion into renovations of its dilapidated public school buildings.

Lew, appointed this summer to direct how the city will spend the school modernization funds, said what he thought was bad is worse.

He sums it up with school bathrooms, where broken toilets are covered with trash bags or are gone altogether. "There are Hefty bags covering these toilets, missing urinals," Lew said. "I've never seen this before. This is crazy."

The craziness has Lew analyzing how to fix a system that watched 141 school buildings gradually deteriorate into a string of facilities with broken toilets, leaking roofs and peeling paint. The answer to why the schools are falling apart and why they could fall apart in the future is maintenance, Lew said. Work orders piled up at the central office of District public schools and school janitors were generally not trained to handle equipment, such as heaters, that broke down, he said.

Maintenance, however, is not included in Lew's job description under the new education law that has allowed Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and the D.C. Council to oversee the public school system.

Lew said he has talked to council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) about putting him in charge of maintenance. "He makes a strong case," Gray said. Without a strong maintenance program, the city's modernization of schools could be for naught, he said.

But that's another discussion.

For now, principals, parents and council members are demanding immediate results, spurred by Fenty's promise to fix the schools academically and physically. "A lot of it is like putting out fires now," Lew said. "We get calls from council members. We get calls from stakeholders. We get calls from ANC [Advisory Neighborhood Commission] commissioners."

Currently, 70 schools are getting fixes, both big and small, with city funds that are part of the modernization effort. Also, 50 schools are getting minor repairs, such as new paint, through a "buff-and-scrub" program, in which local construction companies volunteer and donate the materials and labor. The Metro Washington chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. adopted eight schools, one in each city ward, and donated $10,000 worth of work at each school, said Judy Gretsch, the group's director of communications.

At M.M. Washington Career High School on O Street NW, workers replaced ceiling tiles and lights, and patched walls and painted them a faint yellow. All of the work was donated through ABC. "It's so wonderful," said Margaret Scott, a school performance officer who was visiting the school last week. Students and teachers "are going to be in awe because it's been a long time since there's been a facelift."

The smell of fresh paint and the sound of hammers and drills have some parents, students and teachers at other schools hopeful that they will see significant improvements when they arrive for the first day of school Monday. "I think it's going to look good, because I've seen people doing the paint. They said the bathrooms will be fixed," said Freddy Possian, a 10th-grader a Cardozo High School.

Last school year, just half of the bathrooms had working toilets, he said.

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