The Price of Neglect
Not Maintained, Costly Heating Systems Fail in Droves

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.

Some officials say the problems' roots are in the cutbacks in budget and staffing that accelerated during the city's fiscal crises of the past 15 years.

"There hasn't been adequate resources to do any maintenance. Period," said Paul Taylor, who has been deputy director of the schools' facilities department for two years. Moving his hands apart and then closer together, he said: "This is how much you need, this is how much you got. Something is not going to get done."

Sarah Woodhead, who ran the facilities department from 2001 to 2003, said slashed budgets forced her to focus on emergencies and ignore preventive maintenance. "It's not just a risky thing to do; it's a guaranteed failure," she said. "I think it's a tragic situation."

Since 1996, the number of engineers licensed to run the boilers has dwindled from 400 to 140, said John Woodall, secretary-treasurer of the union representing the workers. Licensed engineers are the only school employees who can operate the boilers, and, in the past, each school had its own engineer. Now engineers oversee multiple buildings and boilers.

"Things are set up to deteriorate," Woodall said.

Most of the seven school administrations that have come and gone since the 1980s set out to fix the buildings, but each failed and, in some cases, made problems worse with shortsighted spending decisions. Projects were complicated by the political interplay among the school board, the D.C. Council, the mayor and, at times, Congress.

The most recent cash infusion came last year when the council approved an additional $1 billion for school repairs, bringing to $2.3 billion the total to be spent over 10 years. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who took over the school system in June, gave control of construction to Allen Y. Lew, who had played key roles in the city's biggest recent building projects: the convention center and the baseball stadium.

Lew quickly pushed to expand his authority to maintenance. "It's not even worth building the schools if we're not going to commit to maintenance," Lew said in an interview. "It's just repeating history. It's a miserable way of investing taxpayer dollars."

He said that even after an $80 million fix-up blitz last spring and summer, the new administration inherited a backlog of $120 million worth of additional repairs, equal to four times the annual repair budget.

Tony Robinson, Lew's spokesman, said the school system signed a contract with a company last month to treat the boiler water at all schools.

Robinson said Lew's agency is getting calls from schools every day to fix heating problems. The staff is now responding immediately, he said.

"No more putting in work orders and getting it fixed three years later," Robinson said.

$2 Billion Mission

The Army Corps was not the first outside group summoned when the deterioration of the District's schools reached crisis proportions in the 1990s. Faced with problems including fire code violations that threatened to force the closure of many schools, then-Superintendent Franklin L. Smith hired a private company, ServiceMaster, to manage school maintenance.

But when a financial control board created by Congress took over the city's schools in 1996, its members fired Smith. And his successor, retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr., in turn fired ServiceMaster, which auditors said was overpaid by about $6 million.

School maintenance workers resumed responsibility for the buildings in 1997. That fall, court-ordered roof repairs delayed the opening of schools for three weeks. Dozens of schools needed boiler repairs, in some cases forcing officials to bus children to makeshift classrooms in other buildings.

Becton resigned the next year but on his way out hired the Army Corps to do school repairs. Corps personnel fanned out through the schools beginning in 1998 and found widespread problems, including boilers at more than 60 schools that they rated as poor or unsatisfactory. The mission quickly expanded to a $2 billion plan to rebuild every D.C. public school.

The Corps work included hiring contractors to rebuild 12 schools and replace heating systems at 43 others. "We basically just gutted the whole heating plant, wall to wall, floor to ceiling," said Dan Oswald, a Corps engineer who helped manage the work.

Still, heating problems persisted at some older schools because of aging pipes and failing radiators in classrooms. And in most cases, the capital budget had no money for additional repairs.

"That was the biggest complaint from principals: 'We saw you there working for two or three months, we got a new heating plant, why is this classroom too cold?' " Oswald said.

The Corps's role ended last year after the agency had spent nearly $700 million and drawn criticism for cost overruns and delays.

All along, school maintenance workers had been responsible for the upkeep of the new equipment. But school officials did not ramp up spending to protect their new investments. In fact, the system lost maintenance staff members when Arlene Ackerman, who replaced Becton in 1998, began assigning the workers by school enrollment, which was falling, instead of square footage, recalled William Lockridge, a member of the now-defunct D.C. Board of Education. Under the law that put Fenty in charge of the system, Lockridge and other school board members now serve in a much-diminished role on the State Board of Education, which helps formulate school policy but has little to do with operations.

In 2000, Lockridge said, Ackerman tried to restore maintenance workers but was overruled by a board of trustees that oversaw the schools during the city's financial crisis. "The board didn't take her recommendation because of budget constraints," Lockridge said. He added that Ackerman's successor, Paul Vance, cut the administrative budget, which further reduced the maintenance staff.

Woodhead, the former facilities chief, said she asked Vance for an additional $40 million for preventive maintenance. But then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams rejected the request, she said. "All the levels of government failed to have the will to solve the problem," she said.

Gregory M. McCarthy, who served as Williams's chief of staff, said he could not recall whether such a request was made. Still, he said, Williams tried to fully fund the school system's budget and became impatient when school leaders came back for more money.

"We never felt we had a full picture of what was being spent and that it was tracked adequately," McCarthy said.

Half of a Warm School

In a September 2006 internal memo, school maintenance officials noted that they had "a backlog of boiler repair due to the failure to treat" the water and that making the fixes would save the school system millions of dollars. But by then it was too late.

At Park View Elementary School in Northwest, the Corps had installed five boilers in 2001, but by the end of 2003, three were inoperable, according to repair records. In 2004, two boilers began leaking. And this fall, contractors who went into the school as part of yet another repair blitz said they found that mineral deposits had eroded all five boilers and destroyed many of the original components in two units.

At Spingarn, the Corps in 2001 put in four new high-pressure steam boilers from Fulton Boiler Works, a top-of-the-line model that is "built like a tank," said Frank J. Smollon Sr., president of United Energy Products in Crofton, who said he sold the units to the school for a total of $250,000 to $300,000. "It's designed to last at least 30 years, but as much as 40 years."

Last winter, the school was down to one boiler and was forced to heat one side of the building at a time, records show. "Every winter, some rooms are getting heat and others, not," said Vernon Williams, who teaches English and French.

Earlier this year, school officials gave up on repairs and brought in a temporary boiler. And they have ordered new boilers that are expected to cost at least $500,000 to install.

Down in the boiler room, Hubbard, the heating engineer, said, he had no choice but to turn on the heat, even when his requests for water treatment chemicals went unanswered.

"You know, you do what you have to do. These kids need heat, and they need to come to school," he said. "I could easily say, 'I can't fire up because I don't have chemicals, I ain't going to fire up because I don't have salt.' No. I got to fire up."

'Do It Fast'

Some school officials said the rush to rebuild schools during the Corps project led to design problems that make routine maintenance difficult. "This is what happens from going fast, trying to do it fast," said Taylor, the facilities chief.

At Randle Highlands Elementary in Southeast, maintenance workers cannot reach the motors that blow air into each classroom because water pipes were installed in the way. They said five blowers are broken, and as a result, those classrooms lack heat or air conditioning.

The building that houses Bell Multicultural Senior High and Lincoln Middle in Northwest, which opened last year, was designed with 250 independent air blowers, each requiring regular service. "We really don't have adequate staff there" to maintain them, Jackson said. Dirty filters aren't being changed, he said.

Staff members also continue to struggle with computerized heating controls at Bell and other new schools, Jackson said. "We can't control heating and cooling" in parts of Bell, he said, because "it's much more difficult to troubleshoot."

At Barnard Elementary in Northwest, rebuilt in 2003, the controls failed because the heating system had "not been properly serviced and/or maintained," internal records show.

Army Corps officials said they worked closely with school administrators on all design decisions for their projects. David Morrow, a Corps program manager, said: "We are proud of the work we did there. I think the school system has a right to be proud of the work we did there."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company