Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Thursday announced a $1.3 billion, six-year capital budget that pushes back more than a dozen proposed school renovations and adds $30 million to the budget for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, making it the most expensive high school project to date.
The price tag for the city’s selective arts magnet school rose from $139 million a year ago to $178 million. Government officials attributed the extra cost to the challenges of building a world-class performing arts space while respecting the historic character of the 19th-century Georgetown school building.
But many have questioned the added costs and amenities for one school when many buildings still need refurbished bathrooms. Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century Schools Fund, called the cost “outrageous” and a reflection of “astoundingly poor planning.”
The city has made enormous investments in upgrading school facilities after decades of deferred maintenance. More than $4 billion has been spent on upgrades since 2000, according to a tally by the 21st Century Schools Fund, which monitors construction spending.
The six-year spending plan for renovations is included with the mayor’s budget and submitted to the D.C. Council each spring. It gets rearranged annually, with some projects moving up or back or growing in scale and price. That brings excitement or heartache for communities that have come to associate renovations with a reset of a school’s reputation.
The spending plan includes $117 million for Coolidge High School, the last neighborhood high school to be modernized. The funds would be spread over five years, rather than three. And it includes $67 million for Banneker High, which will be the last application high school to be renovated, but it pushes the start date from 2016 to 2019.
The mayor’s first capital program also includes $53 million for the renovation of MacFarland Middle School in Ward 4 over the next three years and $47 million for the planning and modernization of a selective middle school in Ward 7 at a site that has not been chosen. Both projects are seen as key parts of a commitment to increasing quality middle school options for families , which was a key part of Bowser’s mayoral campaign.
At the same time, two middle schools in Ward 6 — Jefferson Academy and Eliot-Hine — had funding delayed from 2016 to 2019.
Joe Weedon, a member of the State Board of Education and a longtime parent advocate in Capitol Hill, said the delay “undermines years of work” and could hurt the momentum as more families are thinking of sending their children to neighborhood middle schools, rather that turning to charter or private schools.
Other projects that were delayed included a $24 million renovation for Browne Education Campus in Ward 5 that was moved from 2016 to 2019 and a $13.9 million renovation for Houston Elementary in Ward 7 that was moved from 2017 to 2019. Both projects’ planned budgets were reduced.
Some projects that were delayed this year because of a midyear reprogramming of capital funds were included in the budget for next year. They include Garrison, Murch and Marie Reed elementary schools in Northwest and Watkins Elementary in Southeast. Shayne Wells, a spokesman for the deputy mayor for education, said Bowser wanted to keep her commitment to the school communities that had been delayed this year.
During an oversight hearing before the D.C. Council in February, Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson called for an overhaul of the process for mapping out school modernizations. She said that renovations have become too expensive and politically charged and that decisions should be based on clear criteria, including a building’s condition and school enrollment, rather than “how loudly your community screams.”
Wells said the mayor is committed to looking at “the entire process.”
“We want to implement real best practices and make this process the most transparent it has ever been,” he said.