D.C. School Renovations Won't Finish on Time

Problems with renovations will not prevent students from returning to school, said D.C. schools official Allen Y. Lew.
Problems with renovations will not prevent students from returning to school, said D.C. schools official Allen Y. Lew. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Construction crews are scrambling on double shifts to finish millions of dollars in renovations to several D.C. schools that are slated to accommodate hundreds of additional students for the beginning of classes Monday, and a top city official acknowledged yesterday that some of the work will not be completed on time.

The biggest issues involve four schools with a projected enrollment of more than 1,600: Browne Education Center, Emery Education Center and Eliot-Hine Middle School, all in Northeast Washington, and Raymond Elementary in Northwest. They are among the 28 schools scheduled to accept students from the 23 closed by Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee in June because of low enrollment.

Allen Y. Lew, executive director of the District's Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, said in a statement that the problems will not prevent students from attending school but that there might be "some things that roll into the school year." Any remaining work will be done after school hours, he said.

Two schools visited yesterday, Browne and Eliot-Hine, were virtually uninhabitable. Thick construction dust wafted through corridors cluttered with old and new furniture. Scores of classrooms remained stripped bare, awaiting floors, new paint and electrical fixtures. "Replace 18 lights," read one sign taped to a classroom door at Browne. Auditoriums were filled with floor-to-ceiling scaffolding and are missing seats.

Yesterday was the first day for teachers to arrive and begin preparing their classrooms. But at Eliot-Hine, a merger of two middle schools, staff members were barred from the building because of conditions inside. Outside, Eliot-Hine's athletic field and parking lot were almost filled with construction trucks and equipment.

At Emery, old, damaged student lockers sat in large piles near the front entrance.

The problems come at an inopportune moment for the administration of Adrian M. Fenty (D), which is still smarting from a $31 million cost overrun in its summer jobs program. The administration has also staked much of its reputation on a promised overhaul of the city's school system.

Fenty's staff went on public relations lockdown yesterday, canceling a late-afternoon interview with Lew. Carrie Brooks, the mayor's spokeswoman, did not respond to phone or e-mail messages. Instead, Lew's office issued this statement: "The schools of the District of Columbia have suffered decades of neglect. Since I have been facilities director, my team and I have worked tirelessly to make sure that we are providing the best environments possible for students. We are the first to say we have a long way to go."

The struggle to complete the renovations on time also conjures memories of last summer's difficulties with textbook delivery, which culminated in Rhee and Fenty touring a school system warehouse filled with pallets of shrink-wrapped, undelivered books. Textbook distribution has gone more smoothly this year, teachers and principals have said.

Lew has been lionized by city officials as a public-works wizard for his on-time work on the Convention Center and the Nationals ballpark. At Monday's ribbon-cutting for the new Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School, another Lew project, Fenty again praised him: "There's no one better to build things than Allen Lew," he said.

But trouble with the school consolidation effort has been brewing all summer. The scope of the work in vintage buildings from the 1930s and 1950s, combined with a tight schedule that could begin only when classes ended in mid-June, left little margin for error. Some of the work involved putting bathrooms and storage rooms in classrooms for pre-K and kindergarten students, renovating shower areas, upgrading electrical systems and in some cases installing elevators.

But in July, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), concerned about the policy implications of the pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade configuration, excessive costs and the last-minute submission of the construction contracts for approval, held up several of them. The wrangling resulted in issuance of "stop work" orders by Lew's office, which slowed progress by contractors. Mark Cain, a spokesman for Smoot Construction, lead contractor at Browne, Eliot-Hine and Raymond, declined to comment.

"I don't talk about client matters to the press," he said.

There were other issues at Emery. A supervisor for Environmental Design and Construction, a company working at the school yesterday, said the firm was rushed in to replace a subcontractor that had fallen behind.

Other renovated schools are in better shape but are still missing important features. Francis-Stevens Educational Center in Foggy Bottom, a former junior high school converting to pre-K through eighth grade, will not get an elevator or one of its promised science labs until later this month. Principal Maurice Kennard said that while much of the work is done, construction debris and dust remain an issue. He said officials have promised a "deep clean" over the weekend.

"Cleanup is my main concern," he said.

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