On a rainy fall morning in 1981, Paula S. Dorosti arrived for her first day as an art teacher at Ballou High School to find several inches of water on her classroom floor. A year and several roof repairs later, water still floods Dorosti's east-wing class during torrential rains.
The leaks in Ballou's 23-year-old roof bother Andrew Weeks, acting director of the school system's buildings and grounds division. So do 36 other District school roofs that have been awaiting major repairs for more than a year--not to mention other unattended needs, including 84 room conversions, seven costly boiler replacements, the modernizing of electrical systems in 20 schools and the upgrading of electronic security systems in 122 more.
In the District, where the average school is at least 25 years old, the continuing war against rot, slipshod construction and vandalism in the city's nearly 200 school buildings has assumed crisis proportions, say Weeks and other top school officials.
"It's all we can do to hold our own with repairs," said Weeks, 58, a former Army MP who joined the school system in 1960. Even with millions in maintenance dollars and a small army of repair crews, he said, "we just try to keep up with the vandalism, even the simple wear and tear. If we ever got behind, we'd never catch up."
Early last month, Weeks sent the school board a $59.5 million plan for improvements to city schools over the next five years. For 1984 alone he asked for $26 million.
That proposal stands little chance of being fully funded by the City Council, however, which holds the purse strings of the school department. Top officials in the Office of Budget and Planning said last week they already have pared the $26 million request to just less than $20 million.
Weeks said that reduction could jeopardize a $7 million plan to complete three unfinished projects: a career center at the Bell Vocational School in Northeast, renovations at the Chamberlain school in Southeast and major work at the Burdick career center in Northwest.
"That's Priority One," he said. "We want the authority, and the new money, to finish what we've started." Those projects already have been marred by budget overruns and costly construction delays, he added.
School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie last week called the city's funding proposal "totally inadequate." "Our schools are in a serious state of deterioration," she said.
"The condition of these buildings impacts directly on the kids. If the roof leaks or if the equipment is outmoded, how can we expect them to compete on a national basis?" she said.
McKenzie singled out four high schools--Ballou, McKinley, Spingarn and Cardozo--as those in the worst condition.
"Those are crisis situations," she said. "Ballou still has serious roof problems and the halls are entirely too dark. That lighting is a security problem. McKinley is so old that it's substandard."
Spingarn and Cardozo, she said, "are just as bad. And they haven't even been considered for funding until now."
It is not that McKenzie and Weeks expect District schools to be unblemished, "it's just that we want them to be in a lot better shape than they are," Weeks said.
Maintenance headaches are innumerable, school officials said. The wooden gym floor at Deal Junior High School in Northwest, which buckled badly under leaking rainwater several years ago, prompted one school board member recently to compare it to a pitcher's mound.
Two weeks ago, a fire set by vandals at Johnson Junior High School in Southeast caused extensive smoke damage to corridors and ceilings. At Fort Lincoln Elementary School in Northeast, ceiling tiles removed during a $500,000 reconstruction of the roof have not been replaced.
"In 1978, when the contractor did the original roof on Fort Lincoln, the job was faulty," said David L. Huie, who was buildings director at the time. A second roof installed a year later also leaked, he added.
"If it wasn't so tragic, it'd be funny," he said. "When the second roof leaked, it was like Murphy's Law and Rube Goldberg together. Somebody seriously suggested that we allow the building to leak and then channel that water to the outside of the building."
Planning and construction disasters, such as the Fort Lincoln roof, created a four-year nightmare for Huie, and continue to do so for Weeks, because a simple roof leak often leads to other problems that disrupt a school's daily routine, both men said. Plaster dissolves and paint peels, while school children scamper to find dry space.
Art teacher Dorosti said conditions at Ballou are the worst she has seen in six years of teaching at three District schools.
"Whenever it rained hard last year--sometimes, the water would gush down a hole in the ceiling--there would be a dash for the library or the auditorium, whichever was dry," Dorosti said.
"The standing joke here is that when it rains outside, it rains indoors, too," principal Dennis C. Johnson Jr. said.
The school's problems were not limited to watery floors. The heating system sometimes failed in bitter weather, Dorosti said. Last February, water pipes in an art stockroom burst, forcing the closing of the west wing and covering her with "black, murky hot water," she said.
Johnson, guiding a visitor through his school last week, pointed out more than two dozen places where water had dissolved ceiling tiles, frequently exposing pipes and electrical wires.
Water damage was everywhere, from a crumbling cement roof oozing tar in the auto repair shop to major leaks in the woodworking shop. In one spot, the gymnasium's wooden floor had buckled a least a foot off its foundation. Even Johnson's office has four leaks.
"We've plugged some of the leaks, but the job won't be done till we get a new roof," said Johnson, who said he has repeatedly alerted top school officials to the conditions at Ballou. "Things are pretty bleak, but we try to not let it affect the teaching that goes on here."
Current and former school officials said the seeds of the current maintenance crisis were sown 20 years ago when an unprecedented number of schools were built in the District, partly in response to the city's population growth.
Regarded at the time as the best way to remove obsolete schools from use, the building boom had a flaw. "There was a lot of money being put into putting up new schools, but little money spent to keep them maintained," said Huie, an architect who now directs the department's management analysis division.
"What wasn't learned at the time was that, as soon as you put a building up, you've got to take the time and the money to keep it in good shape," Huie said. Few realized "what an awful job, a mammoth job that was," he added.
The longstanding practice of cannibalizing the buildings and grounds budget when other divisions in the school system needed cash only worsened the problem, officials said.
The city's reluctance to fund adequate maintenance staffs didn't help, they added. At the start of his term, Huie had only 10 carpenters, plumbers, electricians and other repair workers; Weeks now has 130 and has asked for 30 more.
"In the past, the department was also hampered by the fact that anything to do with the schools was so highly political," Weeks said. "We did things project by project. We had to take care of a pet project in this ward or that.
"Now, the heat is on all people in this department to get things up to snuff. Not that it will happen overnight, of course."