D.C. Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) detailed the unsavory cafeteria conditions at Shepherd Elementary School in a letter he posted on a community email list.
“Shepherd has a welldocumented history of rodent infestation,” he wrote. “It is a major health hazard for our students to have to eat among rodent droppings on and near their lunch tables.”
Todd was assailing the $12.4 million cut in funding for renovations to Shepherd Elementary, a decline that came during recent budget negotiations and will cost the Ward 4 school in Northwest Washington its long-promised new cafeteria.
“We must address the concerns,” he said.
School officials say the description of the rodent-infested cafeteria is exaggerated, and the rats are no more an issue at Shepherd than they are in other parts of the city. The squabble is the latest of many fights involving the District’s $6 billion plan, more than a decade long, to modernize most of its school buildings. By fiscal year 2022, 98 of the system’s 112 schools will be modernized, according to city officials.
When Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced her $13.4 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2017, she also proposed overhauling the method the city uses to budget for school modernization projects. The District would begin to use more realistic cost estimates when it makes capital improvements to schools and will apply a standard ranking system to decide the order in which schools are renovated. Her plan also called for schools to be renovated at one time, instead of in multiple phases during summers.
The mayor’s proposed budget included the $12.4 million to renovate Shepherd’s combined cafeteria and auditorium. But the D.C. Council’s education committee recommended slashing that funding, instead spreading the money to fund smaller projects at other schools. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who chairs the committee, said Shepherd already has received tens of millions of dollars in renovations, and the money should be used at schools that are not slated to receive any renovations in the next few years. Construction is currently underway at Shepherd to build a third story and an atrium.
Parents at the school think that the money should stay there, arguing that the cafeteria is crucial and that it should have been renovated long ago.
“That has left some of the members of the community feeling like Shepherd was targeted,” said Jasmine Riley, co-president of Shepherd’s Parent Teacher Association. “We’re not asking for yoga classes; were not asking for sushi; we’re just asking for a safe environment for our children.”
The D.C. Council voted to approve the budget — which included the cuts to Shepherd — last week, and it is expected to pass it with a final vote when it convenes May 31.
Shepherd was not the only school to see proposed funding changes to renovation projects.
Coolidge High School — located in Ward 4’s Takoma neighborhood — initially was slated to receive $59 million in fiscal year 2017. That money would have, in part, gone toward designing a renovation project and preparing the building for the work, which was planned to be completed by August 2019.
Grosso said the committee removed more than $45 million of that funding and reallocated it toward fulfilling the city’s expensive goal of opening small homeless shelters in each of the city’s wards to replace the troubled D.C. General shelter.
The plan is for the city to allocate more money to Coolidge in coming years so that the renovation can still be completed by 2019.
Todd, the council member, said he is worried that the money will not actually be there in future years, and he fears that the Coolidge project could receive cuts again.
“What’s to say that wouldn’t be the case next year?” Todd said. “While I do support closing D.C. General, I think we could have found the money elsewhere.”
Others feel their schools were slighted in the budget process from the beginning. Parents at Garrison Elementary School in the Logan Circle neighborhood argue that their antiquated building is dissuading young families from enrolling in the school. The school had wanted $40 million for a complete renovation, but it is receiving only $28 million.
And while most schools are now being renovated all at once, Garrison will be renovated during two summers because there are no available empty buildings in the neighborhood for the students to move into while construction is underway.
Garrison will have the sinkhole in its field repaired this summer and will receive renovations to the interior of the school the following summer. The school’s multipurpose room will not receive renovation funds.
“The need of that school is not as great as some of the others,” said Nathaniel Beers, the school system’s chief operating officer.