Benita Douglas has been looking forward to sending her son to the middle school in her Capitol Hill neighborhood so he could stay with friends he has known since kindergarten.
But a planned renovation of Eliot-Hine Middle School recently got pushed back from a scheduled start next year to 2019. Now she is getting nervous about sending him to a building with broken bathroom doors, rusting pipes and overheated classrooms.
“I would feel like I’m sending my child to some kind of developing country,” said Douglas, a nurse’s assistant and the mother of two children at Maury Elementary.
The Eliot-Hine renovation is one of more than 40 school projects that were delayed in a $1.3 billion, six-year school construction plan Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) proposed last month.
The delays — a result of cost overruns and a slowdown in capital spending — have stoked parental anxiety in neighborhoods with still-crumbling schools and have prompted city leaders to call for an overhaul of the way capital projects are planned and prioritized.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), chairman of the Education Committee, was expected to release a revised capital plan Wednesday. He also was expected to propose new rules to govern school construction decisions, basing those decisions on criteria such as a school’s condition and enrollment.
The intention is to move the city away from a planning process that many have criticized as opaque and driven mainly by political pressure, with projects’ fortunes shifting with the priorities of the sitting mayor and D.C. Council.
“The past six to eight years have been a real free-for-all when it comes to capital budgets in the schools,” Grosso said. “I think there can be some objective ways to do this that are fair and can have a better impact on a broader number of schools.”
More than $3.2 billion has been spent on school renovations since 2007, when then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) accelerated a capital program to reverse decades of neglect in the public schools.
Since then, building renovations have become the most visible symbol of the city’s efforts to improve the school system, a campaign that has produced glass-covered atriums, swimming pools and energy-saving features such as rainwater harvesting and photovoltaic panels.
All the amenities have served to heighten a a sense of the public schools being divided into haves and have-nots, particularly as funding slows.
City leaders are working to draft “education specifications” that would offer a common starting point for future projects. Grosso said it is time to rein in spending: “I’m tired of Taj Mahals.”
The six-year capital budget for public schools dropped 20 percent — to $1.27 billion from $1.6 billion — as the city prepares to pay down what amounts to a major debt load after several years of aggressive borrowing.
This year, the system expects to spend $434 million on school projects. Bowser’s capital plan includes $335 million for school projects next year. By fiscal 2018, annual spending would drop to $123 million before it begins to increase again.
“Parents will be patient if they know their turn is coming,” said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, which advocates for facilities improvements. “But people are feeling like they are going to turn off the hose.”
Delays have been exacerbated by construction cost overruns.
Duke Ellington School of the Arts was budgeted for $81.5 million in 2013. The current plan calls for $178 million.
Jennifer Niles, deputy mayor for education, said construction costs have increased by 20 percent in recent years, driving up costs at Ellington and elsewhere. The Ellington design also calls for expensive performance spaces and an underground parking garage in the school’s cramped Georgetown location, she said.
Ellington has become a sore point, with calls for more scrutiny of how tax dollars are being spent. Many have questioned the size of the investment for just 600 students when thousands attend schools with leaking bathrooms and no space for physical education. And some of those schools might not see improvements for many years.
At a public hearing last month, children from Orr Elementary, a Ward 8 school whose capital funding had been delayed a number of times, talked about mice-infested classrooms, an outdated “open floor plan” and a 40-year-old boiler that makes some rooms unbearably hot.
Orr is one of two dozen schools that Grosso has dubbed “phase zero,” meaning they have not received any dedicated funds from the capital budget beyond basic maintenance or “stabilization.”
Five of those schools are in Ward 7, which is one of the poorest parts of the city and also has a large concentration of young families.
Jimell Sanders, a Ward 7 mother with a toddler, said not all of the schools in her ward have active parent groups that can call attention to their schools, so she and others are trying to advocate for all the schools in the ward. She said that she is glad that Grosso is calling attention to untouched schools but that she is disappointed that Grosso is scaling down his vision for them.
“So the first in line, they get the atriums and the aesthetic design elements,” she said.
As spending slows, some parents are questioning the decision to prioritize high schools early in the process. The redesigned high schools were supposed to be proud cornerstones of their communities, but many have low enrollments and empty classrooms.
Coolidge High School in Ward 4, with a projected enrollment of 401 students next year, will be the last neighborhood high school to be renovated, at a cost of $119 million over six years, according to Bowser’s capital plan.
In the meantime, the school system is struggling to attract families back to outdated middle schools, and a growing wave of young families is shopping for elementary schools.
Martha McIntosh, co-president of the Home and School Association at Murch Elementary in Ward 3, said the condition of the building is very much on the minds of families when they visit schools.
“The first question they are asking is, ‘When is it going to be modernized?’ ” she said.