The Price of Neglect

[Chart: D.C. public schools have spent more than $116 million since 2000 to replace heating and cooling systems.]
Broken Equipment
By David S. Fallis, V. Dion Haynes and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 31, 2007

The Army Corps of Engineers came to the District in the late 1990s on an expensive mission: launch a massive overhaul of decrepit school buildings, which eventually included spending $80 million to replace ancient heating systems with brand-new boilers to last 25 years or more.

Since then, 40 of the 55 renovated heating systems have broken down or needed major repair. Public schools officials failed to maintain the new equipment, leading to problems such as damage from mineral deposits that built up because the water was not properly treated, repair records and interviews show.

It would have cost just $100,000 a year to remove harmful minerals from the water flowing into all of the more than 400 boilers in the public schools. But maintenance officials say there was never enough money for it in their budget.

As a result, heating systems old and new have been breaking down all over the school district. Administrators had to sink more than $10 million into emergency repairs this year alone, prompted by cold classrooms at 71 schools in February that displaced hundreds of children.

The failing boilers are a testament to the school system's longstanding inability to keep its buildings in shape or make the best of huge infusions of money. This decade, records show, the schools have spent more than $116 million to replace or overhaul heating and air-conditioning units, including the Army Corps projects. This winter, officials trucked in temporary boilers for seven schools where the systems have failed.

The District's water is "hard," or heavy with minerals such as magnesium and calcium carbonate. Left untreated in a steam boiler, it leaves deposits that can clog pipes and corrode the inner workings.

At Spingarn Senior High School in Northeast, the Corps put in four new boilers and pipe work in 2001 for about $3.9 million, records show. The units now sit in pools of rusty water, beyond repair.

"Calcium carbonate killed those boilers," said Howard W. Hubbard, Spingarn's heating engineer. The school district is leasing a temporary boiler, installed on a semitrailer in the parking lot, at a cost of about $100,000 for the school year.

Over the years, Hubbard said, he ordered bags of water treatment chemicals from the central office but received them only about half of the time. "We never got the resources to fully do our job," he said.

James Jackson, a manager in the school system's facilities maintenance division, said that whatever funding was available was spent first on problems threatening "life, health and safety" in the district's 150-plus buildings.

"We never said, 'Don't do water treatment,' " said Jackson, who has been with the division for 19 years. "If the money was gone before we could do water treatment, then we couldn't do it."

Byproduct of Budget Cuts

The maintenance and repair problems in the District's schools go far beyond heating systems. Students, teachers and administrators in many buildings have endured broken bathrooms, leaking roofs, lead-tainted drinking water, asbestos contamination and rodent infestations, school records show. In some cases, repair requests have gone years without a response.

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