The District's leading parents' group accused city school officials yesterday of not moving aggressively to spend $22 million for building repairs, saying delays have left thousands of fire code violations unattended.
Parents United, announcing its criticism inside a dilapidated auditorium at Buchanan Secondary Learning Center in Southeast Washington, said the school system's facilities office is in disarray and that the number of schools with broken fire alarms, missing fire doors and chained fire exits has increased since last year.
Patricia Lambe, the school system spokeswoman, said the administration expects to spend most of the repair money in the last part of the fiscal year, which ends in September. She also said school and Fire Department officials meet regularly to discuss fire code violations. Repair crews have been authorized to work for overtime pay to correct them, Lambe said.
"It's not fair to say we haven't made progress," she said. "This has the highest priority."
Lambe said the system expects to appoint a director of facilities this month. The position has been vacant since last fall, and the repair backlog -- estimated at $150 million -- has grown. School board members cited the troubles in the school system's facilities office as one reason they voted in November to fire Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins.
However, officials said yesterday that Jenkins, who is two years short of retirement and has tenure, has been asked to supervise the $22 million in repair money.
School board President R. David Hall (Ward 2), who led the move to fire Jenkins, said he is not troubled by Jenkins's appointment. "As a deputy, he has performed well," Hall said. "He was just over his head as superintendent."
School board member Bob Boyd (Ward 6), who attended the Parents United briefing, said he shared the group's anxiety about the $22 million.
"My concern is that we have not been able to gear up with that money as rapidly as we had hoped," Boyd said. "But I believe the system will spend it."
In a report compiled from D.C. Fire Department records, Parents United said inspectors found more than 3,000 code violations in visits to 37 of the city's 175 schools since April. While conceding that hundreds of the violations were not life-threatening, the group said serious hazards -- such as faulty alarms or chained doors -- were discovered at most schools.
Yesterday's report was the second time in nine months that Parents United has warned of the dangers the city's aging schools pose. Last spring, school officials denounced the group's first report, which also detailed several thousand violations, as exaggerated. Nevertheless, officials used it to help win $22 million for repairs from the city and Congress.
"One of the reasons we're back is that the problem has gotten worse, not better," said Alfred M. Mamlet, a lawyer who organized the fire safety report for Parents United.
The group said fire officials have increased inspections at schools in recent months, but have not forced the system to correct violations. It also said school leaders have not decided how to spend the $22 million.
Ted Holmes, a Fire Department spokesman, said Fire Chief Ray Alfred has urged school leaders to repair violations that present "imminent kinds of danger," but has refused to close any school cited for violations, as the city fire code mandates. Holmes said the department uses the code "as a guide."
"We could close every school in the city if we closed them based on violations," he said. "But then what do we do about those students' education?"
Nevertheless, Parents United said fire and school officials continue to "trivialize the problem." The group, citing school system documents, said there were at least a dozen minor fires at District schools last year.
It also quoted Jenkins's testimony to Congress last year, in which he said most violations were "very minor . . . such as a light bulb being out in an exit sign." At the time, Jenkins vowed to take immediate steps to correct serious violations -- but problems persisted. At five of the 13 schools a fire inspector visited last fall, fire exits had been chained shut.