Three closed D.C. schools won't reopen soon

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 22, 2010

Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's promises to rebuild three D.C. schools that closed in 2008 are likely to remain unfulfilled in the near future, a delay that city officials attribute to reduced revenue because of the economy and unanticipated expenditures on other projects.

Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) roiled neighborhoods across the city when they announced the closure of 23 schools that were underenrolled or in poor physical condition. In three cases, they softened the impact of the deeply unpopular decisions by promising to modernize or rebuild the schools while students were relocated.

Since fall 2008, students at Bruce-Monroe Elementary (Ward 1) have attended Park View Elementary, children from Brookland Education Campus (Ward 5) are enrolled at Bunker Hill, and Turner Elementary students (Ward 8) have gone to Green Elementary.

Parents in each community were told that new or vastly modernized buildings would be ready within three years. But the school system's $200 million-a-year capital program, which has delivered gleaming new facilities such as Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School (Ward 5) and the Wheatley Education Campus (Ward 5), faces a budget squeeze as tax revenue declines and deficits mount.

"Our biggest issue is money," said Rhee, who is scheduled to appear Monday before the D.C. Council. "We don't have as much of it as we did before." Asked whether, in retrospect, she overpromised school communities, she said: "I promised based on what [the financial situation] looked like at the time. I didn't expect the capital budget to take a hammering."

Parents unhappy about the unrealized pledges say the situation is made worse by conditions at the schools their children now attend. Despite nearly $1 million in improvements last year to the 94-year-old building now called Bruce-Monroe Elementary School at Park View, broken water pipes and rodent droppings are chronic problems, parents and staff members say.

Maintenance records confirm the allegations, showing that pest-control workers were called to the school, at 3560 Warder St. NW, three times in January alone. A Jan. 13 notation on a District work order said: "The rodents are going into the food supply. Immediate action must be taken."

"This school is contaminated," said Lynell Granberry, who said her two children who attend Bruce-Monroe at Park View "stay home sick more than ever."

Officials acknowledge that the ambitious modernization effort led by school construction czar Allen Y. Lew has been more expensive than expected, costing about $1 billion. Extra work added to two major modernization projects -- including more classrooms at Alice Deal Middle School (Ward 3) and acoustical upgrades to walls and ceilings at the 118-year-old School Without Walls High School (Ward 2) -- sent costs $30 million over projections, according to D.C. records and senior officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the D.C. Council will not be briefed on a revised master facilities plan until Wednesday.

Smaller projects also exceeded cost projections. Four elementary schools -- Burroughs (Ward 5), Brent (Ward 6), Tubman (Ward 1) and Ferebee-Hope (Ward 8) -- each went $1 million to $2 million over budget for classroom renovations, officials said.

At a council oversight hearing this month, Lew said his initial approach, which involved making immediate improvements to classrooms while deferring other work, might have been a miscalculation.

"We learned that when you go into a space, you can't ignore the corridors and the bathrooms and the lobbies and the windows," he said.

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