Sterling Henry III is more than two months into his freshman year at Cardozo Senior High School in Northwest Washington, but he says his shock at conditions inside the building has yet to wear off.
Large chunks of plaster are missing from numerous walls and ceilings. Many urinals in the restrooms are broken. Only about two of the more than dozen water fountains are working. The gym is so small that the Cardozo Clerks must play their home games on the basketball court at nearby Roosevelt Senior High. And the school's swimming pool has been closed for 11 years because of cracks.
"I expected the school to be cleaner," Sterling said. "It makes me feel they don't care."
The deterioration at Cardozo is more the rule than the exception in the D.C. school system. After years of deferred maintenance, funding cuts and mismanagement of capital programs, most of its 147 schools are in desperate need of repair and renovation. The buildings average 73 years old, and many have leaky roofs, faulty plumbing, dimly lighted halls and air-handling systems that leave classrooms too cold in winter and too warm in spring and summer.
Everyone agrees that the needs are glaring. But a D.C. Council member's proposal to generate $1 billion in school renovation funds over the next decade through various tax increases has revived concerns about the scope and cost of a major renovation project.
Among the issues being debated by city officials, business leaders and education activists: How can the school system ensure that a bigger construction budget won't lead to cost overruns like those that plagued some of the earlier capital projects? What is the right balance between upgrading basic infrastructure and spending more to create state-of-the-art media centers and science labs? What is the appropriate scope of renovations in a system that is losing enrollment every year? And what claim do the city's fast-growing public charter schools have on the revamped buildings?
Seeing an opportunity to broaden support for her legislation, council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) agreed last week to postpone a vote on the measure until Dec. 5 so that school officials and the business community could discuss those issues and work together to try to produce a realistic and cost-effective modernization plan.
In 2000, the school board adopted a $3.5 billion plan that called for all schools to be upgraded over the next 20 years. But that program soon ran into financial trouble, both because the council's annual appropriations were smaller than expected and because several of the initial projects came in over budget. This spring, Superintendent Clifford B. Janey persuaded the board to approve a scaled-back plan that emphasized basic repairs over wholesale rebuilding so that more schools could get immediate help with urgent problems.
Patterson's bill, which would provide the additional $1 billion by raising the city's parking, cigarette and commercial real estate taxes and delaying an income tax cut, has given many students, teachers and parents reason to hope that the timetable for renovating their school will be accelerated.
"This bill is long overdue," said Janey, who expressed disgust at the condition of the schools when he took office in September 2004. "It's an opportunity through legislation to finally call the right question."
At the same time, Janey and other school officials said the boost in construction funds does not mean they would go back to the approach of 2000. Instead of putting every school on the list for modernization, they plan to trim costs by consolidating schools. Janey intends to release a plan in January outlining the system's educational needs, followed by recommendations in April on which schools should be closed.
An independent study released this year found that the school system, whose enrollment has declined from 69,000 to about 59,000 over the past five years, needs only 10 million of its 16 million square feet of space and that 37 schools are operating at 65 percent or less of their capacity.
Barbara B. Lang, president and chief executive of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said school consolidation is one of the issues that business leaders want to discuss with school officials over the next month, although she said they are not expecting details on specific school closings because Janey's facilities plan will not be completed until April.
Meanwhile, charter-school advocates say that any new tax revenue for school modernization must take their space needs into account. The District's 52 charter schools enroll 17,819 students, a 15 percent increase over last year, according to an unofficial count. But many of the independently run schools are struggling to find affordable quarters.
Malcolm E. Peabody, chairman of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a charter school advocacy group, said it will lobby to urge Patterson to include language in her bill requiring that the school system occupy only the space it needs and make rooms or entire buildings available to charter schools.
Lang said the Chamber of Commerce is not convinced that an accelerated construction program must be financed through tax increases and wants to explore alternative funding sources, including surplus city funds, bonds, public-private partnerships and the sale of excess school property. She also said that business leaders want school officials to provide an assessment now of their total renovation needs, rather than coming back later to seek additional funds. School officials said their current estimate of what they need is about $4 billion.
The chamber also is seeking to have an independent entity oversee the rebuilding, arguing that the school system has demonstrated that it does not have the in-house capacity to manage such a large program and to prevent costs from spiraling out of control. Among the recent examples of cost overruns are the modernization of Barnard Elementary School in Northwest, which increased from $12 million to $23 million, and the construction of McKinley Technology Senior High School in Northeast, a project that went from $45 million to $73 million.
"The credibility of our school board is not high because of its past performance," Lang said, adding that independent oversight might persuade the federal government to contribute aid.
School officials, however, maintain that the overruns stemmed mostly from mismanagement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which started working with D.C. schools under a 1998 agreement when the school system was being run by a federal control board, and that outside management is not needed.
"We're not supporting any entity that would act as a second Board of Education," Janey said.
In addition to the oversight issue, there is debate on how ambitious the overhauls of schools should be.
At many schools, parents and staff are hoping that Patterson's legislation will restore plans for a full-scale modernization. One of those schools is Cardozo, which was slated to get a new gym and swimming pool until the board adopted the scaled-down capital improvements plan.
"If we got extra money, our students would love a new gym and a new pool area," said Barbara B. Childs, an assistant principal at Cardozo. Childs said such amenities would put Cardozo, located in the District's gentrifying Shaw neighborhood, on par with private and suburban high schools.
But Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, which advocates for improved facilities for urban schools, said projects should be kept relatively modest so that the money can be spread to more schools.
She wondered, for example, whether the money Cardozo is seeking for a new gym and football field would be better spent on replacement of wiring, heating and cooling systems at several schools.
Sarah Woodhead, a D.C. public school parent who ran the school system's facilities department from 2001 to 2003, said she supports full modernization of Cardozo. "The gym is not the core of education, but it is important to the school," she said. Parents "told me unequivocally . . . it really could be a community asset."