D.C. Council Chief Criticizes Quality of Some School Repairs

Workers rehabilitate Eliot-Hine Middle School on Constitution Avenue NE as part of a $163 million renovation effort of schools throughout the District.
Workers rehabilitate Eliot-Hine Middle School on Constitution Avenue NE as part of a $163 million renovation effort of schools throughout the District. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

The quality of this summer's $163 million in renovations to D.C. schools varies widely, with some projects suffering from time pressures, poor planning and inadequate oversight of contractors, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray said yesterday.

In a letter to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), Gray said council staff visits to 15 schools over the past two weeks show "major improvements" in areas such as roofing, science labs and auditoriums. But they also reveal problems that leave several schools "not learning ready," with classes scheduled to begin Monday, he said.

The letter from Gray (D) is the latest sign of deep official anxiety over whether city schools will open smoothly after a nine-week program of school closures and consolidations imposed by Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. In June, Rhee closed 23 schools because of low enrollment and designated 28 others to receive thousands of children from the shuttered buildings. Some schools needed extensive renovation to accommodate pre-k and kindergarten students.

City officials acknowledged Tuesday that renovations at four schools that are scheduled to accept hundreds of additional students -- Browne Education Center, Emery Education Center and Eliot-Hine Middle School in Northeast, and Raymond Elementary in Northwest -- may not be finished by Monday.

Gray took no responsibility for the delays, although his concerns about the costs and education policy implications of the school realignment delayed council approval of some funding and slowed work at some sites for about two weeks.

His letter also cited Eliot-Hine and mentioned others schools that might encounter problems next week. He said asbestos abatement in the auditorium at Garnet-Patterson-Shaw Middle School in Northwest has prevented other renovations from going forward. "This is a de facto acknowledgement that the work cannot be finished before the start of school," Gray wrote. He also mentioned Francis-Stevens Learning Center, a newly consolidated Pre-K-8 school in Foggy Bottom, as "not learning ready."

Air conditioning at Roosevelt Senior High School and West Elementary in Northwest was "unreliable," Gray said, although work had been done over the past year. Scheduled plumbing repairs at Ferebee-Hope Elementary had not begun as of Aug. 11, Gray said, and electrical work was delayed because of lack of a permit.

Fenty's spokeswoman, Carrie Brooks, said the city had been working to upgrade the condition of city schools, "but there were some inevitable problems that were bound to arise given the decades of neglect of many of these buildings. The administration is the first to admit that there is much more to do."

Gray told Fenty that he does not hold the city's top school construction official, Allen Y. Lew, responsible for the problems. Rather, Gray said, "Mr. Lew and his staff have been asked to do the impossible." The result, Gray said in a television interview yesterday, was "kind of a perfect storm" in which far too many objectives were pursued with too little time on a short summer schedule.

Although the council staff visits did not provide a comprehensive picture, Gray said, they revealed wide disparities in the level of workmanship. Where a wing of Ballou High School received a new roof, for example, "an extensive patching of a very poor roof" over the gym at MacFarland Middle School raises questions about durability. At Springarn High School, a poorly designed stadium ramp for people with disabilities caused flooding of restrooms and a storage room, where $8,000 worth of mats had to be discarded.

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