The D.C. Board of Education voted last week to allow a Northwest community to pay for construction of a $150,000 multipurpose school and community center on school property and then turn over the facility to the school system.
The board's decision marked the first time that officials have allowed parents to build a facility that the school system will then use and operate.
Citizens in the community surrounding Horace Mann Elementary School, at 44th and Newark streets NW, who have already raised a third of the $150,000 needed for the building, asked for permission to construct the center, after trying for several years to get the school board to fund the project.
"It's a nice community effort and it enhances the school," said Wanda Washburn, the board member who represents the ward in which Mann is located. "You can't say to people who have put this kind of effort into it that you're not grateful for it."
Barbara Simmons, an at-large School Board member who cast the lone vote against the project, said it would set a precedent and that other affluent communities like Mann's might fund similar facilities at their schools, while poor communities could not afford such projects.
"Rich people can build on school property, poor people can't," Simmons said at the June 19 meeting. She said it was unfair that "inner city schools get raggedier and others are getting more elegant."
Barbara Fant, head of the Committee for the Horace Mann Community Center Inc., which has led the fight for the building said Mann, one of the city's smallest schools with 200 students, has no auditorium, gymnasium or cafeteria. Students must cross Newark Street to the Metropolitan Methodist Church for assemblies, she said.
"The sad thing is that the principal of Mann has been trying to get an additional building for 15 years, but there have been no funds," said Fant, who has worked on the project since 1978. "We consider this project a role model for any community group that wants to provide such a facility."
She said much of the committee's funds were raised on "nickel and dime contributions" and that "the path we followed anyone can follow. The fact that we are in an affluent area did not have anything to do with our work."
Fant said the committee, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and the PTA, through individual donations ranging from $1 to $1,000, and activities such as bake sales and square dances, have raised $52,000.
The largest contribution the committee received was approximately $1,000 from Perpetual American Savings and Loan, she said.
And the group's "Buy a Brick" campaign in 1981, where contributors "bought" bricks used to build the center for $100 each, attracted more than 100 donors, including Mayor Marion Barry, she added.
In addition to monetary donations, the project also received some professional services from parents with children at the school. For example, architectural design work is being performed at a reduced rate by architect John Wiebenson, who had two children who attended Mann, Fant said.
The city's Department of Recreation has pledged to apply for a grant to match that amount from the National Park Service, she said. In return, the school board has agreed to let the department use the building for recreational activities for 25 years.
In order to qualify for the Park Service matching grant, the project must provide outside recreation facilities, Fant said. For that purpose, the center will include two restrooms and a small amphitheater outside, she said.
The plan is to borrow the balance of the money from a bank and use personal pledges, paid monthly by parents, to pay it off in three years, Fant said.
Construction could begin later this year, if a bank loan for which the committee has applied, is approved, she said.
The new building, about the size of two traditional classrooms, will be constructed on part of the school's playground. The school system would run it and pay maintenance and utility costs after its completion.