By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
School officials have warned the D.C. Council that failure to approve $83 million in building repair contracts at its meeting today could leave thousands of children in severely under-equipped schools or stranded altogether when classes begin Aug. 25.
In separate letters to council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and Allen Y. Lew, head of school modernization efforts, said the contracts are critical to the renovation and repair of buildings designated to receive students from the nearly two dozen schools Rhee ordered closed this month because of low enrollment. Thirteen of the schools targeted for work are slated to become pre-K-8 campuses.
Work at many of the schools, which got underway when classes ended June 12, involves extensive plumbing and electrical repairs, including the installation of elevators in some buildings. All renovations were scheduled to be completed Aug. 15, 10 days before the start of the academic year.
In a letter that Rhee sent to Gray on Friday and that her office released late yesterday, Rhee said contractors retained to do the work on tight summer schedules might be unwilling or unable to complete the jobs because of uncertainty over whether the council will approve the money to pay them.
"If these contracts are not finalized . . . a successful and timely school opening will be put at substantial risk," Rhee wrote.
Lew, in a letter hand-delivered to Gray yesterday, said as many as 4,500 students could be affected if the work is not completed. As currently configured, many of the schools "lack the number of classrooms to hold the new populations," the letter said. Others would lack science facilities, gym space and age-appropriate bathrooms, Lew said.
He faced tough questioning about the plan at a council hearing last week. Gray and other members expressed concern that Lew and Rhee wanted to divert money from the $2 billion school modernization fund, meaning that other schools, including Southeast's Ballou High and Turner Elementary schools, would face delays in badly needed overhauls.
Gray also expressed unhappiness that Lew and Rhee -- who did not attend the hearing -- had never attempted to explain the educational rationale for consolidating schools into a pre-K-8 grouping. He said that the conversions of the buildings "represent a significant policy shift," and that policy shouldn't be made "through construction projects."
Rhee has said that the format has advantages over traditional elementary and middle schools because it provides adolescents with continuity and steady support during difficult years of physical and emotional change. Some parents of small children, however, are leery of having unruly adolescents in the same building with elementary school students.