In his Nov. 22 Metro column, "Fix Up Schools, but Not With Faulty System," Marc Fisher unfairly asserted that D.C. Public Schools could not be trusted to "rebuild entire schools. . . . The system can't manage a window installation."
Before funding was yanked and the Office of Facilities Management was downsized several years ago, the school system renovated the first 10 schools on the city's School Modernization Plan -- and reasonably within budget.
At a Nov. 21 briefing, the system's chief of business operations provided numbers that showed that spending by the Army Corps of Engineers for school-modernization efforts averaged $286 a square foot; projects managed by D.C. Public Schools averaged $191 a square foot.
Maintenance of D.C. public schools has been underfunded for decades. The industry standard is $2.20 per square foot, which assumes a sustained maintenance program and a healthy infrastructure. As recently as fiscal 2003, D.C. schools allocated $1.08 per square foot for maintenance. That figure has gradually climbed to $1.80.
At these rates, maintenance of our schools, old and new, cannot keep pace with deterioration, and repairs endlessly deferred become capital projects.
I was disappointed by Marc Fisher's out-of-hand dismissal of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' partnership with D.C. Public Schools. He characterized those results with a single word: "nada."
However, nine modernized schools, designed and built by the Corps' with a capacity of 4,550 students, are in use.
Three more schools are under construction and will be completed before fall, offering space to an additional 2,085 students.
Fully half of the Corps' accomplishments are less apparent -- though just as essential. For example, the Corps undertook a systemwide asbestos management and abatement program for the schools, improving their health and safety while helping the school system avoid an imminent consent decree from the Environmental Protection Agency and possible school closures.
The Corps also has made progress on the removal of leaking or non-compliant underground storage tanks on school properties, avoiding action by the D.C. Health Department. Further, the Corps has replaced central heating plants at 54 schools, central cooling plants at 32 schools, bathrooms at 72 schools and roofs at 48 schools.
Following a transition plan agreed upon in 2000, the scope of the Corps' support has been reduced in phases. The Corps has not had any involvement in asbestos management or component-replacement projects for several years, and by the end of 2006 its few remaining projects will be completed.
Certainly, many D.C. school facilities are in unsatisfactory condition today, but it was inaccurate for Mr. Fisher to suggest that nothing has been accomplished by the Corps' partnership with the school system.
JOSEPH T. HAND
and Acting District Engineer
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Today the D.C. Council is set to vote on legislation to provide $1 billion for capital improvements to the public schools during the next 10 years. It's a smart bill. The city won't take on new debt; instead, these improvements will be financed by a slight increase in the commercial real estate tax and by canceling planned tax cuts for middle- and upper-income residents.
Modern, clean, safe schools matter. Yet anyone who has visited even a handful of D.C. public schools knows that they need a massive infusion of capital.
Critics argue that the public should not support the bill until the District deals with all the extra space in the school system and until D.C. Public Schools proves that it can manage its resources. These are fair points. A policy on co-location -- putting facilities such as public charter schools, libraries, community centers, even affordable housing for public employees, including teachers, in the same school building -- needs to be implemented to take advantage of excess space.
Clearly, too, some schools will have to be closed, and a construction planning and management strategy needs to be put in place. But even under the most aggressive and efficient consolidation plan, analysts say it will cost as much as $2 billion to get the schools into shape.
Passing the bill will mean that subsequent conversations about co-location, consolidation and construction can occur with a financial plan in place.
Eight years ago we started the Maya Angelou Public Charter School, which seeks to serve students who have not found success in traditional schools. We now have two campuses, one run in partnership with D.C. Public Schools. Our decision to start a charter school is part of our broader commitment to good public education for all students.
Charter schools are not the principal beneficiaries of this legislation, but the issue is bigger than charter schools. All the city's residents -- whether their children attend traditional public, public charter or private schools -- should come together to ask the District's leaders to take this important step in providing modern, clean and safe schools for all children.
JAMES FORMAN JR.