When the Duke Ellington School of the Arts reopens its Georgetown campus next week after a three-year renovation, it will boast state-of-the-art dance and music studios, gleaming new classrooms, an 850-seat multimedia auditorium, a 300-seat performance hall, a rooftop terrace and underground parking. From head to toe it will be the showstopper in the decade-long drive to modernize the D.C. Public Schools.
But Ellington will also reopen more than a year behind schedule and about $100 million over the $71 million budget the D.C. Council first approved, making it the biggest budget-buster in the modernization effort for all 115 DCPS schools. And the spending at Ellington isn’t finished.
Last month,frustrated council members considered a late request for $4.5 million to have the school ready for its 575 students when classes start Aug. 21. Among the extra costs were $1.5 million in permit fees still unpaid and $250,000 to bleach terrazzo flooring.
The council members huffed and puffed their annoyance with the unexpected charges.
“Exhibit A in how not to control cost,” said Elissa Silverman (I-At Large).
“It shows me bad planning, again . . . and lackluster oversight,” said David Grosso (I-At Large).
“We shouldn’t be in the business of building palaces, anyway,” said Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3).
“Ellington is the example of madness,” said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2).
“How we got to this stage is beyond me,” said former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7).
All but Silverman voted to approve the request.
Rising costs are hardly unique to Ellington. Across the city, school renovations have come in late and well over original budgets. In 2006, the council approved an additional $100 million annually in capital funding for rebuilding schools. But that number has ballooned. So far, $3.35 billion has been spent, financed in part through city borrowing, with another $1.3 billion included in the capital improvements plan.
The city has poured money into school construction in part because it has made education improvement a priority in the past decade. But as the bills pile up, critics are raising questions about the overruns and how they might limit funding for other city priorities.
D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson pointed out last year in a 43-page report on Ellington that the budget explosion at that school mirrored what was happening at many others about the same time. As Ellington’s budget surged to $178.5 million, spending plans for 35 other DCPS school modernizations grew from $586 million to $1.4 billion.
The proposed cost to overhaul Lafayette Elementary in Chevy Chase, for example, was $49 million. It came in at $78 million. At Roosevelt High in Petworth, the projection was $100 million. It ended up at $136 million. The starting budget for Watkins Elementary on Capitol Hill was $14 million. It’s now $39 million.
The problem is not that the work costs much more than it should have — although in some cases that is true — but rather that the process for setting initial budgets almost guaranteed wildly unrealistic projections, Patterson said in an interview.
Construction contracts were approved before designs were substantially complete, Patterson wrote in her audit. The Department of General Services, or DGS, relied on one management firm — D.C. Partners for the Revitalization of Education Projects, known as D.C. PEP, , to oversee the effort. That limited competition for projects, undercutting a proven approach to controlling costs.
Patterson and other critics say the lack of transparency in the process and inefficiencies that precluded significant competition led to final budgets that bore little resemblance to the original ones.
Greer Johnson Gillis, whom Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) named as DGS director a year ago, said modernization budgets in the past relied on very early cost estimates and failed to account for educational specifications or community input at individual schools. Budgets grew as that information became available.
Now the D.C. PEP contract has ended, Gillis said, and DGS is taking the lead with improved project planning. “We hear very clearly the concerns that have been raised,” she said.
In a statement to The Washington Post on Wednesday, D.C. PEP defended its performance and said D.C. school renovations had received national accolades.
D.C. PEP said it had not earned more money as a result of rising construction costs and disputed the notion that costs increased because of a lack of competition. Costs rose “through an evolving design process” and always at the direction of city and school system officials, the partnership said.
“During the course of the program, DCPEP demonstrated an outstanding record of on-time, on-budget delivery of school modernization projects,” the statement said.
Asked who is responsible for the budget creep at Ellington and elsewhere, Patterson, a council member from 1995 to 2007, offered a wry smile and shook her head.
“That’s the $178 million question,” she said. “One of the reasons there isn’t more discipline in the process is because the responsibility is broadly shared and therefore everybody is in charge and nobody is in charge.
“You can say that the mayor and the council are the ones who sign the checks essentially, so they are in charge. But DCPS is the client, DGS is the facilities agency, the [chief financial officer] blesses everything. They submit this capital improvement program presumably knowing some of the numbers are not worth the paper they’re printed on.”
Throughout the process no one is told no, Patterson said. Saving money wasn’t rewarded and overspending wasn’t punished. As a result, the District has dozens of top-notch new and refurbished school buildings, but at a much higher price than everyone initially agreed to and without a concerted effort to contain costs or broker better deals.
“We’re getting some fabulous new schools and it’s hard to argue against that,” Patterson says. “But it really won’t be until council members want to spend money on something else that they’ll be driven to thinking they’ll need to put a little more discipline into the process.”
There were smiles all around on Dec. 19, 2014 when then-Mayor Gray and then-DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson took part in the groundbreaking for Ellington in Georgetown. Founded in 1974, the school had earned a reputation as one of the top arts high schools in the country and boasted graduates including opera singer Denyce Graves, comedian Dave Chappelle and indie rocker Mary Timony.
But the school building on R Street NW, originally Western High and built in 1898, needed a thorough renovation.
The plan was ambitious. The majestic neoclassical portico would remain, but the interior would be almost unrecognizable. Additions of auditoriums, studios, classrooms and bathrooms would all need to be built from scratch. Overall space would expand from 172,000 to 280,000 square feet. The projected cost at that point had risen to $82 million. Within two years it would double.
An underground garage was added for $6 million, and that required additional hefty charges for demolition, structural steel and earthwork. The $136 per square-foot cost of the garage was nearly twice the industry estimate of $75 per square foot for an underground garage in the Washington area, the auditor reported.
Even before the first shovelfuls of dirt flew, critics questioned the spending. Some wondered whether it would have been better — and cheaper — to construct a new building rather than dramatically reshape one that was more than a century old. Others thought the school should be relocated because Georgetown is inaccessible by Metro and hard to reach for many students.
“Ellington kind of sticks in my craw,” says Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund and a longtime D.C. public schools watchdog. “If you had come out at the beginning and said to the public we’re going to spend $200 million on a school for 500 kids in Georgetown, I don’t think that people would have gone along with it. I think they would have looked seriously at a different location in the city that would have benefited from that kind of capital investment.”
But the project went forward. Less than a year after groundbreaking the price tag jumped to $139 million as designs neared completion. By 2016 the budget grew to $168 million, more than doubling in a two-year span. Now the budget is $178.5 million.
Even some project supporters blink at the ever-rising bottom line.
“There’s always an awareness that that beginning number is probably going to be exceeded,” Cheh said. “But I don’t think the council fully appreciated in this case how much it would be exceeded by.”
The coming school year will be the first that Ellington’s rising seniors will spend in Georgetown. In the past three years they have shuttled between temporary locations not far from Howard University for academic and arts classes. For students, teachers and administrators, the return to Georgetown means being able to reunite and reestablish the school’s identity.
“The new building is a tribute to our past and a celebration of our future,”said Sandi Logan, the interim head of school. “It is obviously very exciting, but we’re also really looking forward to being under the same roof.”
A highly competitive school — there were 610 applications this year for 190 spots — the new Ellington is positioned “to provide the technology that is needed and the space that is needed to really execute our programs to the highest level of excellence,” Logan said.
City leaders and educators agree that the school is a gem and that the capital investment in schools across the District was much needed. Modernization continues apace at schools in the city’s four quadrants. By 2022, officials say that work will be complete on 90 percent of school buildings.
But the cost and the process have led to a moment of reckoning. Council members say the city must put more controls in place to keep a lid on its mounting debt. After voting July 11 for the latest Ellington spending bill, Evans said the District cannot afford endless borrowing for “frivolous” capital spending.
“Our challenge now as a council is how we prevent these things from happening in the future,” Evans said. “Even though this city appears to be awash in money, we are running out of borrowed money.”
Emma Brown contributed to this report.