Overseer Of School Revamp Fires Back

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2008

D.C. school construction chief Allen Y. Lew came to his own defense yesterday, promising that all classrooms and common areas in schools under renovation would be ready for the beginning of the academic year Monday. He attributed problems in completing other key repairs to delays in council action, District politics and a contractor who fell behind schedule.

"All the back and forth on the council didn't help," Lew said yesterday as he inspected Eliot-Hine Middle School, where 700 student lockers delivered overnight from a Lancaster, Pa., supplier were being installed because another shipment from China will not arrive on time.

Lew was referring to the D.C. Council's decision to delay approval of some construction funding because of questions about cost and educational policy. Lew said the deliberations made a tight schedule even more difficult, forcing his office to issue two-week "stop work orders" at several sites.

"I was hoping that matters could have been resolved more quickly," said Lew, who was barred by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's office from talking to a Washington Post reporter Tuesday.

Lew's comments are the latest in a round of preemptive finger-pointing over who is to be held accountable if schools do not open smoothly Monday after an eight-week program of closings and consolidations ordered by Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. She closed 23 schools and designated 28 others to receive the thousands of children displaced by the closures. Some buildings needed extensive redesign to accommodate pre-K and kindergarten students. In all, 60 buildings underwent repairs and fixes. While work at most of the schools in the $200 million summer overhaul was done without a hitch, some projects have posed problems.

On Wednesday, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) released a letter to Fenty (D) saying that Lew had been put in a no-win situation by the mayor and the chancellor, with too much work to do in too little time.

Privately, officials on the construction side say Lew has been caught in the crossfire of two camps: Fenty and Rhee, desperate to show immediate progress in their quest to transform city schools, and members of the council -- particularly Gray and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) -- who want to administer some comeuppance to a mayor who they think has not shown them deference on school issues.

Barry, angry about what he called last-minute submission of spending requests, filed a resolution to hold up about $8 million in construction funds. Lew said he went to a campaign fundraiser the former mayor held a couple of weeks ago and appealed to him to lift the hold. "He said he'd think about it," Lew said.

And while Lew said he still counts Gray as "a friend of mine," he views the chairman's letter as a way for Gray to distance himself from possible problems next week.

As he poked around yesterday at Eliot-Hine, a merger of two middle schools near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, Lew looked like someone whose pride and reputation were on the line.

"I'm not known for failing," said the man hailed for shepherding the city's convention center and baseball stadium to timely completion. He acknowledged, however, that his summer of school repair, with its combination of complex public works and multiple political agendas, may be more daunting than either of those projects.

"It's been more challenging," he said.

Eliot-Hine looked better yesterday than it did Tuesday. The halls are clear and most classrooms appear furnished. The odor of paint and sealant is strong. Lew said he is still focused on several schools where work on classroom space has fallen behind: Browne Education Center, Emery Education Center, Bunker Hill Elementary and Raymond Elementary.

Lew said that Smoot Construction, the contractor at Eliot-Hine, Browne and Bunker Hill, never got back on schedule after the stop-work orders were lifted. "They just weren't putting enough muscle into it," said Lew, who has brought another company, Turner, onto the Eliot-Hine site to backstop Smoot. Earlier this week, Smoot said it would not comment on its projects.

Lew and Fenty have spent much of the week troubleshooting spot issues at other schools. As they walked through Draper Elementary on Wednesday, Lew said, Fenty ordered a paint job for the first floor, which will mean 24-hour work shifts through the weekend.

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