Next month, D.C. Council members expect to cast a first vote on giving the city school system $1 billion to fix its pathetically decrepit buildings. They might as well stack the money on Pennsylvania Avenue and set it aflame.
Enter Washington's public schools and you see why many people wouldn't let their children visit most of these schools, let alone grow up inside them. They're wildly overheated, or the heat doesn't work. Busted windows, leaky roofs, befouled bathrooms, unusable gyms -- the situation in some buildings is revolting. Only a few schools have a working science lab. The state-of-the-art jails in Fairfax and Montgomery counties are nicer than the most-run-down D.C. schools.
But giving school administrators $1 billion without setting up a credible outside manager to run the program requires collective amnesia. "They can't handle the money they do have," says school board member Tommy Wells (Wards 5 and 6). "I can't get windows replaced in my schools even though the money is already there."
The system has flunked Maintenance 101 for 30 years. The last time the city tried to modernize schools, in 2000, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported a flop: "In some cases, construction began before the designs were complete."
Rebuild entire schools? The system can't manage a window installation.
So what's the answer? Call in the feds? Congress's ill-fated financial takeover of the school system in the '90s brought us the Army Corps of Engineers. Result: nada.
Outsource the job? Tell it to
St. Louis, which spent $5 million to hire a turnaround firm that privatized many functions, closed 21 schools and laid off 1,000 employees. Result: big salaries for executives, low pay for teachers, larger classes and no signs of success.
Is there any big, urban school system that has managed to rebuild itself?
Los Angeles has opened 32 schools in the past year, many with alluring, edgy designs. The schools -- imagine this happening here -- joined with developers to add affordable housing on some new campuses. Outside architects, engineers and managers make sure projects are on time, on budget.
Chicago hired local architects to set renovation priorities. Principals and residents decided how to spend repair money. Construction and finance professionals monitor the projects.
The obvious solution in the District is to wed the $1 billion renovation fund to a supervisory authority of construction pros. But with six council members seeking higher office next year, the headline-grabbing fund is being set up first. Cart, then horse.
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), the driving force behind the renovation fund, tried to create an education trust to manage the program but backed off because "there is not support for an outside entity on the school board or in the system."
Upon arriving more than a year ago, Superintendent Clifford Janey promised a "dynamic intervention" by outside managers to fix up the system. Janey also concedes that the system is teeming with underused school buildings, many of them gold mines.
But Janey won't divulge his plan for closing schools until April -- long after the renovations vote. Cart, then horse.
Patterson's plan envisions whacking D.C. taxpayers for the bulk of the cost. Smaller amounts would come from taxes that hit commuters (parking) and businesses. Better: Push the parking tax way up, both to get commuters to pay their fair share of the cost of schools and to push more drivers onto transit.
But taxes are not the only answer. It's irresponsible to have 59,000 students rattling around in 150 schools. The District has as many schools now as when it served 146,000 students in 1970. In school after school, whole wings sit empty.
Fast-growing Prince William County, with slightly more students, has 75 schools -- and needs more. Prince George's and Montgomery schools each have twice as many students as the District, yet each has only a couple dozen more schools.
Closing a few dozen schools could boost Mayor Tony Williams's plan to lure 100,000 new residents. Many schools sit on land that makes developers salivate. Developers are so hungry for land in every ward, they'd happily build new schools, free of charge. Doubt it? We just witnessed a wild bidding war for one of the city's most crime-ridden housing projects, Sursum Corda. The money is falling from trees.
History says nothing will happen. Now's the time to change history.