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Lew Seeks Control of Maintaining Schools

By Theola Labb¿
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007; B01

Allen Y. Lew, the D.C. schools construction czar, asked the D.C. Council yesterday for power to take over the routine maintenance of school buildings, saying that to fully transform crumbling schoolhouses, he needs funding and staff members now assigned to the school system.

City education leaders also said yesterday, for the first time, that they plan to close some schools next year.

Lew said his Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization should acquire the school system's Office of Facilities Management, a $33 million department that responds to routine maintenance requests such as repairing roofs and does long-term planning for multimillion-dollar construction projects recommended in the Master Facilities Plan. He also asked for a one-year extension to submit an updated Master Facilities Plan, which was due Monday.

Lew testified in a public roundtable that he has run into "bureaucratic slowdowns" because the school system retains control of construction contracts.

"The system is in gridlock and paralysis," Lew said. If he managed that office, he told council members, "we can move forward in a cleaner, more efficient manner."

In a statement released last night, Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said Lew had made significant progress with facilities "and could certainly bring about the same level of change and accountability to the Office of Facilities Management."

Regarding school closures, Victor A. Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, told council members that he is working with Rhee to develop deactivation criteria.

"Do you plan to close schools before September of next year?" asked council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) during the oversight roundtable.

"Yes," Reinoso said.

Reinoso's remarks were the first public indication that the Fenty administration will pursue the politically sensitive issue of eliminating millions of excess square footage because of declining student enrollment, a position embraced by the former superintendent, the school board and members of Congress.

The Brookings Institution, the Urban Institute and the 21st Century School Fund are studying student demographic data and housing patterns and will recommend to city officials which schools to close.

Reinoso testified that the administration will release the school closure policy, but not a list of the targeted schools, by the end of October. Officials also will announce a schedule of community meetings across the city "to begin the conversation," Reinoso said.

Last year, Superintendent Clifford B. Janey proposed closing 19 schools with low enrollment on a staggered schedule until 2019. Reinoso testified yesterday that enrollment in the D.C. system is projected to drop by 3,700 students this year.

Enrollment in the city's charter schools continues to rise, and education leaders are looking at how to best accommodate the space needs of the independently run public schools.

Reinoso's office has circulated a questionnaire to charter schools, which is due back Monday, asking them about their space requirements and leasing preferences for the 2008-09 school year

Lew said the Master Facilities Plan, which outlines the timetable for school construction projects over 15 years, was prepared before the mayoral takeover and doesn't reflect $75 million in summer repairs and upcoming maintenance, at a cost of $120 million.

Lew said he needs a year to study the plan, make changes and hold community meetings to solicit feedback, which he said could result in faster construction of some projects.

Also yesterday, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) asked Reinoso about yesterday's deadline for the school system to certify to the council that students had received all "textbooks, workbooks and adequate instructional material in each core subject," as required by law.

Reinoso told Gray that officials would miss the deadline but pledged to provide an update by Monday.

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