The D.C. public school system, in its intensive effort to contain asbestos fibers in classrooms, cafeterias and offices, has been forced to use at least $500,000 that had been earmarked for launching computer literacy programs, repairing lockers and renovating playgrounds, officials said yesterday.
Under direction from school Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie, officials this week asked the Board of Education to seek $5 million in emergency aid from Congress to pay for the labor and supplies needed to contain the cancer-causing substance, according to a spokeswoman for the board.
"We've had to shift money around to deal with the asbestos problem," said Andrew Weeks, acting director of the schools' buildings and grounds division. "I've been calling people at different schools who have been expecting work to be done this year and telling them, 'Hey, I'm sorry. We have to do it next fiscal year.' "
Money that was originally set aside to pay for renovations necessary to create standardized computer rooms at 65 schools has been shifted to pay for wages, especially overtime costs, and a variety of services and supplies needed to fight the war against asbestos, including examinations of workers, training courses, surveys and special masks and uniforms, Weeks said.
Dozens of crafts persons and other workers who would have been assigned to make scheduled repairs have been ordered to work on the asbestos project, he said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of new IBM computers that were scheduled to be installed at the 65 schools by the start of the school year are being housed under tight security at a warehouse in Northeast Washington, Weeks said. "We expect to install the computers at 18 of the schools," he said.
Areas of asbestos contamination in 121 schools and administrative buildings will remain sealed off until workers correct the problem with "stopgap" measures, according to McKenzie. Contamination from crumbling asbestos has been corrected in 41 other facilities, officials said.
On Monday night, the school board will hold a hearing on the schools' budget and is expected to discuss its plans to ask Congress for the $5 million.
A longstanding problem that Weeks said he had hoped to solve this year is the installation of new lockers and the repair of broken ones, some with no locks or doors, at 30 junior and senior high schools. Also, he said, there are dilapidated playground swings, basketball courts and fences that should have been fixed this year.
There is a big shortage of lockers fit for use at Coolidge High School at Fifth and Tuckerman streets NW, said Ronald A. Miller, assistant principal at the school. "We've been waiting four years to get these lockers repaired, and I guess we'll have to wait, to be put on hold again," he said.
Miller said, "The kids need lockers. They have nowhere to secure their books and personal effects. But their morale is still very high. They will adjust."
Susie Gantt, a parent and member of the Coolidge Home and School Association, once complained about the lockers, but now, she says, she puts the problem in perspective.
"The lockers are not more important than getting rid of the asbestos, which is a life-threatening element," she said. "I wouldn't want my child to later on in life come down with cancer."