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Posted at 11:55 AM ET, 03/ 2/2011

Can District afford to continue school modernization program?

By Bill Turque

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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By Bill Turque  | March 2, 2011; 11:55 AM ET
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When will Gray just return Pope to Hardy, it's so obvious that--wait, what? This article isn't about Hardy? Isn't this Turque's blog? Huh? There are other schools in DC, you say? Are you sure?

Posted by: horacemann | March 2, 2011 12:21 PM | Report abuse

For horacemann another the others who come here for their daily pain sessions:

Education Writers Association honors 2 Post reporters

Monday, February 28, 2011; 8:28 PM
Bill Turque, a reporter for The Washington Post, has won first prize for print beat reporting in a national contest held by the Education Writers Association.

Valerie Strauss, also a Post reporter, won second prize for Journalism Blogging.

Posted by: edlharris | March 2, 2011 12:35 PM | Report abuse

The initial answer to this question when the CFO reports that the city is facing a 322 million dollar deficit for FY 2012, should be "no", for now.

Fenty's level of spending is simply not sustainable in our current economic environment. The 1.1 billion dollars that Fenty spent for school modernization, was the 1.1 billion dollars that was there for him TO spend by former mayor Anthony Williams. We simply don't have that luxury anymore.

The D.C. Council needs to do the tough work of managing community expectations such that they match financial ability.

"No, for now" should be the mantra coming from each and every council person when spending for anything other than emergency essential projects UNTIL the city has a balanced budget, is no longer furloughing employees and has replenished the city's surplus fund.

Luxuries, like streetcars, should be put on hold. H Street should be repaired to the point where vehicular traffic can pass unencumbered by potholes and street-car related roadway hazards. DDOT should ADD a Circulator route between Benning Road and Union Station (linking it to other Circulator Routes). That route should remain in place until the city's finances are at levels mentioned above.

The council, as I have seen it, really isn't serious about making the cuts necessary to bring our budget under control, except for raising taxes and firing employees. It is over-time that they look at and cut major capital projects. THIS is where you are going to capture major savings.

Posted by: concernedaboutdc | March 2, 2011 12:59 PM | Report abuse

I've sent this link to all the councilmembers, particularly Tommy Wells and invite others to take a sober look at it as well.

Don't keep investing in a looser.

Posted by: concernedaboutdc | March 2, 2011 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Answer: Yes to some, no to others.

Why? Although DC has little left in cash reserves, the city has one of the least sucky real estate markets in the nation (I just got my home property tax assessment for next year, and it was up eight percent), a growing population, and an unbleak employment market. All this means that the city's bond offerings will look, comparatively pretty good.

So, I see the school modernization moving ahead at half speed. If the Feds cut payments to the city, at one-third speed.

Posted by: gardyloo | March 2, 2011 6:09 PM | Report abuse

What a coincidence, prior to this there's an announcement to close high schools. Hence, we now don't have enough money to finish and this is really no shocker. If you want a real eye-opener let's investigate the over-paid shoddy work at Phelps, SWW and Eastern. That's another scandal-gate if you think cars and personnel are recent problems of this administration. I can only imagine the maintenance and upkeep budget on buildings that were shabbily built. If this sounds similiar let's go back about 30 years when the new Dunbar and Woodson were built. In essence new buildings and no budget. Who says history doesn't repeat itself?

And we are lead to believe that we are in a hunt for a new chancellor. Who in their right mind would want the job?

Posted by: mlr1960 | March 2, 2011 10:26 PM | Report abuse

And, the sad thing is, the quality isn't all that. The school SIT teams, and principal and administrators, have to spend time keeping on top of contractors to come back and fix things that weren't done right the first time. Or complete promises. Teachers don't get access to set up for the new year until almost the first day of classes. The atmosphere in our school is much improved, but the hit to moral was bad.

Posted by: KH20003 | March 3, 2011 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Again, here's another added kicker to the inability to afford. You will have Eastern not reaching full capacity until 2015 and you have new equipment that is brought and technology readied now. So, my worry will the boxes of new and improved materials that is in storage to use in future years will be worthy in 2015. We don't have to look far for that answer IPAD one and IPAD two just months apart.

As well all know that line "if you don't use it, you will lose it." The inquiries are already being sent over; such as doesn't Eastern have extra computers, extra chairs, extra printers and so on. This attitude of robbing Peter to pay Paul is prevalent within DCPS. As it has already been bellowed, that it is not Eastern's property but DCPS property and they can send it to whatever school that they deem appropriate.

I surely hope that DCPS invested in an extended warranty on items. But who am I fooling?

Posted by: PowerandPride | March 3, 2011 11:10 AM | Report abuse

On Ed Harris's report of the award Bill Turque won for blogging. Congrats, Bill. Now, that you won an award for sitting at a screen and blogging, consider retirement, so a reporter can go out and get the news.

Posted by: incredulous | March 3, 2011 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Harris: I apologize for misreading your report. My moniker is no excuse for incredulity at the award Mr. Turque actually won, even if the content of the previous comment telegraphs that response. You should also know that the current DCPS web site is a national prize winner for K-12 school systems. We are big in DC education circles, then, on awards.

Maybe the awardees should follow the supposed Obama example and live up to prizes prematurely granted.

On topic: There have been several plans. If the blogger deserved the reporting prize he'd have noted how, and gotten comment from DCPS's contractor (21st Century Schools Fund) enrollment patterns and projections since the start of the rebuilding have modified needs analyses and plans. The blogger could also have gained comment on whether there might be an intention to lease new buildings to charters.

Posted by: incredulous | March 3, 2011 3:48 PM | Report abuse

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