Can District afford to continue school modernization program?
Former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration spent $1.1 billion to stabilize, renovate and rebuild D.C. schools, its athletic fields and playgrounds. The ambitious capital plan, led by school construction czar (now city administrator) Allen Lew, significantly improved dozens of schools and created signature buildings (Phelps, Eastern, Woodson and Deal) that have re-made the face of public education in many city neighborhoods.
But, as my colleague Nikita Stewart recently detailed, Lew seldom met a budget he didn't think could grow. Upgrades to Alice Deal Middle School and School Without Walls High School alone added $30 million to original cost projections. Wilson High School, currently under construction, has gone from an $85 million project to $115 million.
New spending directives emerged from Fenty's office with little or no public discussion, adding $2.7 million for new athletic fields (Eaton and Murch elementary in Ward 3) and $8 million for a new recreation center (Wheatley Education Campus, Ward 5). The badly decayed Ballou and Cardozo senior high schools, once at the front of the queue for extreme makeovers, were pushed back. Nor was there much relationship between the physical condition of a school building and the money budgeted.
D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), who will hold an oversight hearing for the school construction agency (Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization), Wednesday afternoon, said his inquiry will not be "a gotcha kind of thing." What he does want, he said, is more clarity and consistency from new agency head Ollie Harper about what work will be done and when.
"It used to be that there was a plan, and the plan wasn't followed," Brown said.
Of greatest concern to Brown is whether the city will be able to cover the $2.4 billion his staff estimates will be needed to complete the promised work by 2019--at the same level of quality. The projected annual cost of the capital program, funded by bond sales and sales tax revenue, will rise from $268 million in fiscal year 2012 to $353 million through fiscal year 2017. That includes modernizations for Coolidge, Dunbar, Banneker and Spingarn senior highs.
Brown wants to hear from Harper how the city plans to get from here to there.
"At the end of the day we promised we'd modernize every single school," Brown said. "Communities have been promised and promised."
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| March 2, 2011; 11:55 AM ET
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