D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey has seen some seriously degraded school buildings around the country, he said, but a tour of Bruce-Monroe Elementary School in the District still gave him a shock:
One-quarter of the building has been shuttered for years because of crumbling ceilings, asbestos and other problems; plexiglass windows are so corroded it is impossible to see the sky -- or anything else -- outside; bullet holes pockmark the back doors; lights are dim; wires hang from ceilings; classes share the same large room, with only thin partitions, because there are no walls to separate them, making teaching and concentrating harder than they should be.
"It was awful, just awful," said Janey. "I've seen school buildings in New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, everywhere around the country, and this city is among the 10 percent worst -- no, make that 5 percent."
That's what the principal, teachers, students and parents have been screaming about for years to past school superintendents -- to little avail -- regarding the school on Georgia Avenue in Northwest. "We are so frustrated," said Lilian Hernandez, the head of the school's parent group. "All I want is the best for my son."
Instead, her son, David, 10, has to lie on the floor with his classmates, arranged in a circle to read in an attempt to dampen the noise from classes on both sides of them. "You can't really block out all the noise," David said. All he wants is "a classroom with walls and windows I can see out of," he said.
The run-down state of the Bruce-Monroe school building -- which was constructed in 1973 -- is just one of dozens of consequences of long-term neglect in the D.C. school system.
Bruce-Monroe was built, along with nearly two dozen other schools in the city, as what was called an "open school" at a time when some educators thought open spaces were conducive to learning. Since then, the importance of separate classrooms has become understood, although the city still has 22 school buildings that force classes to share space because no walls have been built to separate them.
Moreover, across the city, students are required to try to learn, and teachers are asked to try to teach, in schools where bathroom plumbing doesn't work, walls have holes, stairs are crumbling and lights flicker. Janey, who took over as D.C. school superintendent in September, has toured a number of schools and said the state of some reflects nothing less than "criminal neglect."
He said he wants to make facilities improvement a major focus of his administration. But so much needs to be done that experts say it will take years, and school activists say there is more will in the city to build a baseball stadium than there is to fix the schools.
"It would take well over $1 billion to fix all the issues at all the schools," said Jordan Spooner, deputy director of the 21st Century School Fund.
The D.C. school system has a six-year capital improvement plan that is updated every year and totals $715 million beginning in fiscal 2005. It is primarily managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, a federal public works agency, but no project goes forward without the approval of the superintendent and the school board. The Army Corps has overseen the renovation of seven schools since 2000, and work is underway on several others.
The projects have been criticized for major cost overruns -- a newly renovated high school in Northeast Washington exceeded its original approved budget by nearly $30 million, for example -- and for being slow. There is also concern about the quality of the construction work, said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund. In addition to the money in the capital budget, funds for maintenance are allocated each year. Filardo said the District spends a little over a dollar per square foot, "about half of what you would normally do if you had an infrastructure in good repair and you were maintaining it."
Much of last year's capital budget allocation of $170 million was spent on emergencies, including a fire at one school and the cleanup of a mercury spill at another.
Officials in the system's Facilities Management Department declined to discuss the situation. Jennifer Battle, liaison between the department and Bruce-Monroe, said she was not permitted to talk about it. Greg Williams, department director, did not return several phone calls.
At a Nov. 1 D.C. Council hearing, Williams was grilled by members about delayed maintenance at several schools. Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), for example, asked him to explain why some windows at Eaton Elementary School had not been replaced, and called it "inexcusable" that children sat in rooms with windows they could not see through.
Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) lamented the fate of Bruce-Monroe, calling the school system's inattention to the school "abysmal." At one point, Janey was asked whether he was going to make changes in Facilities Management, and he replied, "Yes."
At Bruce-Monroe, administrators, teachers and parents said they have been promised improvements from downtown for years. The principal, Marta Palacias, said she arrived six years ago and was told that a spacious multipurpose room, with big windows to admit sunlight, would be cleaned of asbestos and made usable for children.
"It never happened, and they never really told us why," she said. The room remains closed, while children use a windowless room elsewhere in the building as a cafeteria, gym, theater and assembly room.
The entire southwest wing of the school -- one-quarter of the 110,700-square-foot building -- is shuttered, with several bathrooms going unused. But, said custodial foreman Rick Kelly, maintenance officials from downtown installed a new boiler there a few years ago and spend money to keep it on every day, even though nobody uses that portion of the building.
Why? "I don't know," he said.
According to Spooner, the school system has a plan for improving buildings but often finds it hard to follow because of emergencies. There is also the issue, city councilmen said, of inadequate workmanship, or work completed at a price well beyond what it should have cost.
Recently, maintenance workers did replace a large, partially broken outdoor play structure, but the new one allows far fewer children to climb and play on it at the same time.
"What are we supposed to do with this?" asked Palacias.
Ramiro Acosta, the bilingual coordinator at the school, said it is extremely hard for teachers to work in such conditions, especially when dealing with young children. In one large area, pre-kindergarten/kindergarten shares space with Head Start for preschoolers, and the noise can be close to deafening.
But he and other teachers stay, he said, adding, "If we don't do it, who will do it?"
Several plans to start renovating Bruce-Monroe have been approved over the past few years, but every time work was to have begun, nothing happened, according to Palacias.
Bruce-Monroe parents have worked for several years, meeting weekly on strategies to get some satisfaction from the administration. They have organized, written letters and alerted elected officials, all with the help of a nonprofit group called "Tellin' Stories," which works to connect parents to their children's schools. Doris Watkins, project director, has maintained a timeline on every development.
The timeline starts in April 2001, with parents and friends of the school completing a facilities needs assessment, and in May sending the school system a list of "urgent needs," including new windows, walls, a back gate and many other repairs. It then details, month by month, communications with system officials about bidding processes that were never completed and promises never kept.
Two weeks before school ended last spring, maintenance officials ordered Palacias to vacate classrooms in a section of the school because work was supposed to begin to replace windows, build walls to create classrooms, repair ceilings and other work, she said.
The rooms remain empty, the work still not done. Four summers after "Tellin' Stories" started its timeline, most of the "urgent needs" remain in need of attention.
"Shocking is not the word for it," said Watkins. "Even appalling isn't appropriate."
Yet parents say they won't give up trying to push the system forward.
Said parent Irma Sorto, "We will continue until we get what we want."