Council Questions Repair Contracts

By V. Dion Haynes and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 26, 2008

School construction officials faced sharp questions from D.C. Council members yesterday about their request to issue $83 million in contracts to repair numerous schools, including 13 slated to become pre-K-8 campuses.

The council summoned Allen Y. Lew, executive director of the city's Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, to explain his proposal to use school modernization money to finance repairs at buildings that would receive students from almost two dozen schools that Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee ordered shuttered this month. Council members tabled the request this week, saying that they were disturbed by the high fees charged by some contractors and that they needed more information.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said he was concerned that using money from the $2 billion modernization fund would mean several schools, including Ballou High in Southeast Washington, Rudolph Elementary in Northwest and Turner Elementary in Southeast, would have to put off top-to-bottom renovations needed to bring aging buildings into the 21st century.

Gray criticized Lew and Rhee, who was not present, for seeking approval for the pre-K-8 conversions of the buildings without explaining the educational benefits through a detailed proposal.

"These expenditures represent a significant policy shift from the initial legislation," Gray said. "I don't think we should make education policy through construction projects."

"You're right; it should have preceded our actions," Lew said. "I wish [Rhee and Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso] were here, so they could share the pain with me."

Lew said he managed to get two contractors to cut their fees in half, saving the city about $1 million. Gray said the council would make a decision on the request next week.

Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) questioned Lew about an unsubstantiated allegation from a school activist that artificial turf installed by the school construction agency could harm student-athletes. "The concern does not apply to the product we're using," Lew said. "We're not interested in putting anything in the school system that is not safe."

Earlier Barry held a news conference on the athletic field at Anacostia High School in Southeast to call for environmental tests on the turf installed at Ballou, Coolidge, Dunbar, McKinley, Roosevelt and Wilson high schools.

Barry said he has learned that the silica sand used by contractor FieldTurf Tarkett could be hazardous, possibly causing silicosis, a lung disease. "I did some research on it. From what I can gather, it is a problem," Barry said. "We don't want our young men to be in the hot sun and fall on this kind of turf."

Anacostia, where weeds covered the slightly overgrown grass field yesterday, is scheduled to get the artificial turf in the next round of field renovations.

FieldTurf Tarkett, a decade-old company based in Pittsburgh, responded with a lengthy statement. The company said it does use the chemical and added that no one has developed silicosis from its use on the company's playing fields.

"FieldTurf Tarkett has, at its core, a commitment to the health and safety of athletes and the environment," the statement reads. "FieldTurf artificial turf is a product created solely to provide athletes of all ages a safe playing surface."

In an interview, spokesman Darren Gill said competitors have been spreading the silicosis rumor. FieldTurf, a leader in the sports surfacing industry, is the only company with a patent for the silica formula used to make the turf "as close to grass as possible."

"Making claims against sand would be advantageous" for competitors, Gill said.

After the news conference, school activist Marvin Tucker, who alerted Barry to the alleged danger, said he got the information about the sand from FieldTurf's competitors. But Tucker said the source of the information did not diminish the potential health risks.

Clarence Cherry, an activist parent who was at the news conference, said he will tell his son to "stay off the field" at Dunbar until the city provides evidence that the turf is safe.

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