The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. mishandles repair requests in schools, other buildings, audit says

The report found shortcomings in the way the Department of General Services keeps track of maintenance work orders

Eastern High School custodian Raymond Woodfork shows tour participants one of the air filters used at the D.C. school on Jan. 22, 2021. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The D.C. agency responsible for maintenance and repairs in school buildings and other government property has “multiple failures” in the way it manages work orders, according to a report from the city’s auditor.

The report, released Monday, described the Department of General Services’ use of a management system that is supposed to help it handle service requests. But auditors said the system has “serious shortcomings” — including incomplete data on work order costs, inconsistent photo documentation of repairs and a failure to provide requesters with an estimated completion date.

Auditors also said the agency fails to meet response times. Routine work orders must be completed within 45 days, but it takes DGS an average of 55 days to finish or close requests, according to data from more than 48,000 work orders. Sixty-two percent of work orders considered to be “high priority” were not finished within the mandatory 10 days, according to the report.

“The auditors make clear that DGS has tools it is not using,” D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson said. “More and better supervision, ensuring independent oversight of the work, and better transparency with government clients are all recommendations the audit team makes to improve DGS’s handling of building maintenance.”

D.C. public schools officials declined to comment on the report, instead deferring to DGS. Officials at DGS said they plan to submit a response to the audit team’s recommendations.

“The Department of General Services takes this work very seriously and is currently reviewing the report,” Chanda Washington, a spokeswoman, said in an email.

The report includes data from more than 61,000 work orders requested between Jan. 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2021 — 43 percent of which were related to D.C. Public Schools facilities. Of 20 buildings and locations with the highest number of work orders, eight were school facilities. Of the work orders reviewed, 78 percent had been completed or closed by June 30, 2022.

Browne Education Campus, which serves prekindergarten through eighth grade in Northeast Washington, had 849 work orders over that time period — the fifth-highest number of work orders in the city. It was followed by Eastern High School, Tyler Elementary School, Columbia Heights Educational Campus (CHEC), LaSalle-Backus Elementary School, Roosevelt High School, Takoma Education Campus and Anacostia High School.

Most of the work requests were related to locks and doors, lighting and HVAC services, according to the report.

The city’s auditor contracted the report following a request from D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who asked for a review of the way DGS handles the school district’s maintenance needs. He said the results indicate that DGS is not taking full advantage of its management system.

“We’re wasting a lot of money on repairs that aren’t being made, repairs that are shoddy. There’s no accountability when mistakes are made,” Mendelson said. “The victim in all of this is the schools and, of course, the students in them.”

The auditor’s findings highlight anxieties from early this school year, when many teachers and parents complained about returning to classrooms that had doors that didn’t lock properly or faulty air-conditioning systems. By the time school started, DGS Director Keith Anderson said there were about 100 open work orders in city schools for issues such as broken water fountains, but nothing that would prevent instruction.

Angela Falkenberg, a middle-school librarian at CHEC, said the auditor’s findings weren’t surprising. She said that there are several inoperable or dysfunctional doors on the campus, and that the building’s two elevators have been going in and out since the start of the school year. She spent the first four years of her tenure trying to get working lightbulbs in the library.

“It’s not necessarily the school’s issue,” Falkenberg said. “We are following those protocols and procedures that have been shared with us to get the issues fixed. We’re being expected to rely on a city service, so at this point, it’s on them.”

Amid concerns over school safety — exacerbated by the May mass killing at a school in Uvalde, Tex. — the D.C. Council in July voted to require schools to report to lawmakers the percentage of doors in each school that locked properly and the working status of every air-conditioning and heating system ahead of the school year.

At the time, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said she was against passage of the law, saying it was duplicative and would cause unnecessary reporting and tracking issues. For example, DGS had already been publishing online the requests that it receives to make HVAC repairs. Her office did not return a request for comment on the audit.

The report comes more than a week after a shooting outside Jackson-Reed High School in Northwest Washington. Police did not report any injuries, and the shooting occurred off campus, but the school was forced into a lockdown.

Melody Molinoff, a parent of two boys and chair of the school’s advisory team, said all she could think about was faulty locks on classroom doors at the school. She also said the building’s public address system does not work in every classroom.

“I did hear from teachers after the fact, and a lot of parents who were texting and saying, ‘My kids’ classroom can’t lock,’ ” Molinoff said. “They were trying to barricade the doors.”

The week after the lockdown, some teachers had reported that the PA system started working in their classrooms, Molinoff said. “There’s been some progress, but not total progress,” she added.