Fenty Offers $1.3B Plan To Update Schools

Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty visit Sousa Middle on the first day of school.
Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty visit Sousa Middle on the first day of school. (By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2008

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty presented the outlines of a $1.3 billion modernization plan yesterday that he promises will place all D.C. schoolchildren in dramatically improved buildings by 2014.

The blueprint, called a master facilities plan, is consistent in character with other school initiatives crafted by Fenty (D) and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee that are designed to show visible results quickly. Like other Fenty-Rhee initiatives, the 250-page document drew criticism almost immediately for its abbreviated timetable and shortage of details.

The plan does not specify estimated costs for each school project. Neither does it offer many details about the scope and scale of the work envisioned.

The most unusual aspect of the plan, which is subject to review and approval by the D.C. Council, is its short timeline. Most facilities plans try to peer 10 to 15 years into the future. Fenty, who has staked his political future on transforming the city's low-performing school system, wants at least some physical improvement to all the District's 120 schools -- 62 elementary, 12 middle, 18 high, 22 pre-K-8 and 6 special education -- between 2009 and 2014.

"We'll completely bring our inventory up to date within five years of the start of the 2008-09 school year," Fenty said, speaking to reporters on the steps of Eliot-Hine Middle School in Northeast.

The plan proposes spending about $250 million a year on various improvements. The focus on elementary schools is the classrooms, where children spend the majority of their time. Money would be spent to improve natural lighting, air quality and acoustics, all factors researchers say can affect test scores.

High schools would have the most ambitious overhaul, city officials said. The document does not spell out exactly what each school can expect. Officials said a model they would like to emulate is Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School, which reopened this year after a 16-month, $63 million reconstruction.

Some high schools, such as Dunbar, would essentially be rebuilt from scratch. Others, such Coolidge, Anacostia and Ballou, would receive intensive modernizations that would include replacing all major building systems, such as heating and cooling.

The plan would not affect modernization or construction work underway at schools such as Alice Deal Middle, scheduled to be completed within the next year, or H.D. Woodson High, where the building will be demolished to make way for a new school by 2010.

The plan would draw on $1.3 billion in bond sales and tax revenue. The lack of detail about costs and the scope of work left at least one school facilities expert puzzled and dubious about whether there is adequate funding for Fenty to deliver what he has promised. The District has spent about $1.4 billion on school modernization over the past few years.

"I don't see how they can do major modernizations in the high schools and leave money for anything else, not if they are staying within a $250 million [annual] budget," said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, which studies the improvement of urban schools. "And I've never heard of a master plan that doesn't have project-specific dollars associated with it."

The initiative is a radical departure from the facilities plan outlined in 2006 by former school superintendent Clifford Janey, which proposed building 23 schools and modernizing an additional 101 others over 15 years for $2.3 billion. City officials say the plan, which never was formally adopted, would have cost at least twice as much to implement.

"We are going to do it not only in the most cost-effective way but a lot quicker," Fenty said yesterday.

The administration promised a long-range plan months ago, but Fenty said he wanted to complete this past summer's $200 million round of renovations before making a final decision. He said his thinking was crystallized by walking through some of the newly overhauled schools, such as Eliot.

"We want to ensure that every single child is in a positive, clean learning environment as quickly as possible," Fenty said.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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