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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 03/22/2010

Inexcusable: Empty promises to a D.C. school

By Valerie Strauss

What can you say after you say that D.C. school officials have yet again let down a school community that has been trying for years to get decent conditions for its students and young children to learn in each weekday?

That it isn’t anybody’s fault, really, because the system never had enough money?

Even if it were true that the system didn’t have enough money, that’s no excuse. In fact, there isn’t any excuse anymore for what has happened to the community at Bruce-Monroe Elementary School.

I toured the school six years ago and wrote an article in The Post -- part of a series on crumbling schools -- about the dangerously dilapidated conditions that existed then and had for years before. A committed band of parents and school personnel had tried over and over to get help from the school system authorities. They were paid lip service by superintendent after superintendent.

Now, Bruce-Monroe community members are having the screws put to them again.

My colleague Bill Turque writes here that schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee -- who became the seventh D.C. schools chief in a decade when she took over from Clifford B. Janey almost three years ago -- is reneging on her promise to rebuild three schools closed in 2008. Bruce-Monroe, in Ward 1, is one of them; the other two are Brookland Elementary in Ward 5 and Turner Elementary in Ward 8.

Rhee said that the downturn in the economy, along with overruns on other construction projects, have made it impossible to follow through on the promises. Those promises, by the way, were made by Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to help get support from neighborhoods for their plan to close 23 schools that had too few students or were in horrible physical condition.

No doubt the economy has had a major impact on the system’s plans, and no doubt construction projects ran over budget. But really, what construction project doesn’t? If I knew it was going to happen, surely the people running it knew, too.

Turque reports that the man in charge of the school modernization effort under Rhee, Allen Y. Lew, is now saying that the whole effort is more expensive than expected, and that the initial approach -- to make some immediate and cosmetic fixes to schools while postponing some of the major systems repairs in a school -- may have been in error. Turque quotes Lew as saying: “We learned that [when] you go into a space you can’t ignore the corridors and the bathrooms and the lobbies and the windows.”

This revelation took this long?

All of this adds up to one big mess for the kids at Bruce-Monroe, who, incidentally, were sent to another unsuitable building, Park View Elementary, where water pipes are broken and mouse droppings are repeatedly found (including in the food supply).

So what do you say after you say the kids are being let down again? That Rhee and Fenty should have found a way to make this happen for these kids.

Leadership is about setting priorities. Ensuring that kids go to school in clean, safe buildings with working bathrooms and pipes and furnaces should be a top priority.

City leaders find ways to get other things done. Rhee, for example, is hiring (with private funds) a special communications expert, former Obama communications chief Anita Dunn, to help her improve her deteriorating relations with city residents. As if what is needed is a better branding effort rather than some straight talk from the chancellor.

Back in 2004, I asked Janey, then the new superintendent, if he would allow me to tour some D.C. schools and write about the deplorable conditions in which children and teachers were being forced to work and learn. He was so new to the job, I told him, that nobody could blame him for the conditions, and he gave me permission.

I visited several schools, including Bruce-Monroe, and wrote stories that described the deplorable conditions in which kids were sitting every day. Here’s some of the Bruce-Monroe story:

D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey has seen some seriously degraded school buildings around the country, he said, but a tour of Bruce-Monroe Elementary School in the District still gave him a shock: One-quarter of the building has been shuttered for years because of crumbling ceilings, asbestos and other problems; plexiglass windows are so corroded it is impossible to see the sky -- or anything else -- outside; bullet holes pockmark the back doors; lights are dim; wires hang from ceilings; classes share the same large room, with only thin partitions, because there are no walls to separate them, making teaching and concentrating harder than they should be.

"It was awful, just awful," Janey said. "I’ve seen school buildings in New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, everywhere around the country, and this city is among the 10 percent worst -- no, make that 5 percent.

"That's what the principal, teachers, students and parents have been screaming about for years to past school superintendents -- to little avail -- regarding the school on Georgia Avenue in Northwest. "We are so frustrated," said Lilian Hernandez, the head of the school's parent group. "All I want is the best for my son."

It was sad then, and, for some reason, I find it even more so now.

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | March 22, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools  | Tags:  Chancellor Michelle Rhee., D.C. public schools  
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Comments

Most jurisdictions have taxicabs that charge $2.00 per mile and bring money into the the city. But Fenty wants to starve out the industry at $1.50. Now everybody suffers.

Posted by: starclimber9 | March 22, 2010 8:17 AM | Report abuse

This is horrible! Children trying to learn in these horrible conditions. Yet money is spent on playgrounds?! Across the city in wealthier neighborhoods?! Incredible!

So tell me: where does Rhee plan to get the money for the new school that she says Principal Pope will lead?

Once again, she lies. And so I say: she should fry with harsh grilling by Council today.

Posted by: ColoredSpirit | March 22, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

It's a terrible situation, but here's some heartening news: Allen Lew is admitting he made an error in judgement, while Rhee, as usual, is blaming someone or something else - in this case, the economy.

Imagine - someone in DCPS leadership admitting a mistake!

But Lew doesn't really work for Rhee, does he? He's a separate entity, right?

That would explain this odd admission of personal error.

Posted by: efavorite | March 22, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

A tragic example of Ms. Rhee's skewed priorities: she had energy to "rearrange" a school that was WORKING (Hardy) but has not been able to deliver the basics to this desperate school.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | March 22, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

No, no, no. I've been inside Bruce-Monroe and helped stock its library with books from Target's charity arm. Bruce-Monroe should be torn down. The building was never built correctly. It has no business being a school.

People, have any of you ever been in Bruce-Monroe? It's one of those "Open Plan" deafening monstrosities from the early 1970s when "community leaders" read: drug addicts (sorry, but totally true in DC) added all this input to schools including this concept that kids could study in groups without walls except that every room in the entire school turned into a screaming mess.

Please shut the school down and raze it. It's not a good school. Please just walk away because there's nothing there to rebuild, seriously, I've been in the school and it's a mess.

Posted by: bbcrock | March 22, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Appreciate your article. It is the only appropriate statement/perspective on this issue. The mayor, the Chancellor and the city should be ashamed at what has happened especially in light of new multimillion dollar playgrounds at Ward 3 schools Murch and Eaton. I have lived in DC and have been going to Murch to play basketball for 22 years, and I have always thought that Murch has one of the best elementary school playgrounds in the city. It clearly did not need (nor did Eaton) or expect a new playground. However, Murch has an unbelievably first class playground and Bruce Monroe has rats in their food. What is happening in our city? Thank you Ms. Strauss for this post!

Posted by: mfalcon | March 22, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

well, there is nothing of substance in either this article or the referenced post article to support the claim that Rhee is reneging on her promise. Yes, it is apparent that the rebuilding of Bruce Monroe will be delayed. I live on the same block as the school. It is currently in the process of being torn down. FYI there was an RFP out last year for design of the site and there were no takers. And that is an irrefutable testament to the current economic situation and the state of Georgia Avenue as well. Supposedly there is a large amount of public money available for redevelopment of GA. Avenue but nobody wants the opportunity. Add it to the list of prime real estate that nobody will touch with a ten foot pole. I'd love to know what was there before Bruce Monroe. Don't recall from the plat maps I looked at years ago but AFAIK there has always been a school there. Originally just called the Monroe School and then merged with the Bruce School that still stands @ the corner of Kenyon and Sherman NW, now a Cesar Chavez unit.

Posted by: daves_trip | March 22, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Article was one of the easiest I-told-u-so pieces to write. As Rhee explained to the Council today, funds had to be diverted for the unanticipated bulge of catch-up capital fixes at schools district-wide. Heating and AC, major plumbing, etc. That bumped major renovations and replacement/new construction. It remains unclear --to many, including the council--who makes the decisions in the capital plan. Rhee, Lew, Mayor, Council? It is impossible to spread funds evenly, and they are not spread evenly. No matter how it's done, Wards 7 and 8 will always have some reason to complain about the distribution. Such is the legacy of way too many schools, which Rhee inherited. She is the only schools head with the cojones, with scant Fenty backing and even a Council nod, of sorts, to get some closed. We still have too many, which are bleeding the capital budget. Lew and his operation have made lots of accomplishments, for sure. But is it cost-effective? And how are decisions made?

Posted by: axolotl | March 22, 2010 8:03 PM | Report abuse

I want to state strongly that none of this is surprising. Many people who have been working on school issues for years testified that the change in strategy for facilities being taken by Rhee would be more expensive than her promises. Go back to the testimony to the council by individuals and groups early in the Rhee years, it was said over and over again that this focus on cosmetic fixes without dealing with the underlying structural problems first would end up costing the system. In case after case parents and school leaders testified about how painting over walls that needed the wiring behind them upgraded, or fixing water damage without repairing the roof problems would waste millions. That abandoning the idea of the idea of keeping closed schools as swing spaces while other schools were gutted would also cost millions. Now millions of our tax dollars later there is a gee whiz, how could we have known routine. If they had listened to the people who used these facilities and have worked to improve the system for years they could have made better decisions. Neither Ms. Rhee or Mr. Lew listened to the very activists that had gotten the council to authorize unprecedented levels of spending to improve our schools, and now they have squandered much of it in the process.

Posted by: qazqaz | March 22, 2010 8:44 PM | Report abuse

IM A HARDY PARENT AND AFTER HEARING WHAT IS GOING ON THROUGH OUT DCPS EVERY TAX PAYER SHOULD BE VERY UPSET. THE MAYOR DOES NOT SEEM TO WANT TO GET INVOLVED IN ANY OF THIS HARDY, BRUCE-MONROE ETC. HE APPOINTED RHEE WE ELECTED HIM SO NOW ITS TIME TO VOTE AGAIN HE DOES NOT HAVE MY VOTE THIS TIME. I CHOSE TO SEND MY CHILD FROM WARD 7 TO HARDY AND THE PARENTS IN OTHER WARDS SHOULD HAVE THE SAME OPPORTUNITY. RHEE IS A LIAR SHE HAS PROVED IT TODAY. OUR KIDS EDUCATION IS SUFFERING WHILE SHE WANT TO BE RIGHT ABOUT EVERYTHING SOMETIMES WE ARE WRONG A GOOD LEADER NO WHEN TO STAY I MADE A MISTAKE OR I FAILED. WE NOW KNOW SHE IS NOT AS GOOD AS A LEADER AS MANY THOUGHT.

Posted by: LONDABAG | March 22, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for writing this article.

Posted by: candycane1 | March 22, 2010 11:21 PM | Report abuse

Was the Hardy MS cost over-run $20 million or closer to $30 million? Does anyone believe the final cost was $49.3 million and not over $50 million.

Posted by: incredulous | March 25, 2010 11:09 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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