Frigid weather this winter made it clear to many of the District’s youngest residents: Their schools need reliable heat.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has found a potential solution, asking the D.C. Council to approve more than $50 million in emergency school repairs. The money would fix the heating and air-conditioning systems at 10 schools and renovate the roofs and outdoor spaces at a handful of other campuses and recreation centers.
To scrape together the money, Bowser is asking the council to redirect funds from other planned construction projects — including $21 million slated to renovate the beloved Fort Dupont Ice Arena, an indoor rink in Southeast Washington.
The move has provoked the ire of the community and an official rebuke from Ward 7 council member Vincent C. Gray (D), who introduced legislation opposing the mayor’s request, a move that will force a council vote.
“It isn’t that I don’t have an appreciation for our schools and our kids; of course, I do,” said Gray, whose ward includes the Fort Dupont Ice Arena. “But I know how important the arena is to our kids and families, as well.”
Bowser, who defeated Gray in the 2014 election, defended her decision during a Friday news conference, saying the schools are in dire need of immediate repairs.
“On a day like today, it should be really clear that we have some [heating and air-conditioning] systems that have lived beyond their years, and we have Band-Aided them and patched them as much as we can, and they have to be replaced,” Bowser said. “We all sometimes have to make tough choices.”
Bowser said the renovation of the Fort Dupont Ice Arena wasn’t fully funded in this year’s budget, so construction wasn’t imminent. She said she wants to provide money for the project in a future budget.
But supporters of the project claim the funding was sufficient and fear that if Bowser strips away the money this year, they may never get it back. Backers of the rink have been fighting for renovation money for years.
The District had allocated $25 million to renovating the four-decade-old arena. The project — which would transform the facility into a two-rink arena — was estimated to cost $30 million, with a nonprofit organization that governs the arena kicking in the remaining $5 million. Fort Dupont Ice Arena is the District’s only public indoor rink and attracts skaters from across the region.
“I am confident that you can build the rink that the community needs for $25 million,” said David Julyan, a board member of Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena.
A social media campaign has emerged to save the rink and received a high-profile nod Friday from Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who tweeted that the rink is “a community treasure and a critical facility for young skaters.”
And the charity arm of Leonsis’s company — Monumental Sports & Entertainment Foundation — launched an online fundraiser for the rink, which received a plug on the Jumbotron at the Capitals’ home game Sunday. Leonsis, his company and the National Hockey League each donated $100,000 to the campaign.
During a news conference Saturday at the arena, parents, skaters and rink backers called on the mayor to keep the city’s promise to finance the expansion.
Julyan said it came as a surprise that Bowser was planning to withdraw money.
“It was an unexpected hit,” Julyan said.
Over the years, the skating arena has served more than 20,000 children — many from Wards 7 and 8 — who have skated in the Kids On Ice program.
The program offers free skating lessons, tutoring and summer camps. Children learn to skate and play ice hockey. They also learn figure, synchronized team and speed skating. The Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena provides free skates and equipment to those who don’t have their own.
“We’ve sent kids to the Olympics,” Julyan said. “We’ve sent kids to college. We’ve sent teams to tournaments.”
The arena is home to hockey clubs for D.C. high schools and colleges. It is also home to the Fort Dupont Cannons, which the NHL says is the oldest black hockey club in North America.
Tomeka Gueory, a Friends of Fort Dupont Arena board member whose three daughters skated there, said parents and skaters have for many years asked the city to build a “second sheet of ice” for the community.
“Fort Dupont’s weekly programming is over capacity,” Gueory said. A new two-rink arena, she said, “is the hope and dream of the Fort Dupont Ice Arena family.”
Her daughter Tenaj Gueory, 21, who grew up skating at Fort Dupont and is now a figure skating and synchronized skating teacher there, said many skaters call the arena home, a place where children build confidence and learn that if they practice, they will get better. And if they fall, they can get back up.
Since 2007, the city has allocated billions of dollars to renovate its ailing school buildings. Bowser’s request to the council — which was submitted on her behalf by council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) — argued that many of the schools in need of emergency renovations weren’t scheduled to be modernized for five years.
The schools that Bowser said are in need of heat and air conditioning repairs include Adams Middle, J.O. Wilson Elementary, Malcolm X Elementary and Seaton Elementary. McKinley Technology High School and Plummer Elementary are among the schools requiring roof renovations.
The Seaton campus is overdue for a revamp, said Suki Lucier, president of the parent-teacher organization at the Shaw school. Its heating and air-conditioning system would be repaired under Bowser’s spending plan. Over the summer, the school had to release children early on a hot day because the air conditioning wasn’t working.
Lucier is encouraged to hear about the improvements to her neighborhood school but does not understand why the flourishing city can’t afford to fix the campuses and revamp the skating rink.
“It’s justified and smart for the city to invest in our schools,” ahw said. “But I do think it’s sad when the city pits communities against one another.”