Why Giving $1 Billion to the D.C. Schools for Renovations is Like Lighting a Bonfire of Dollar Bills
Your average D.C. public school is not a place you would voluntarily allow your child to set foot in. The ceilings leak, the gym floors buckle, paint chips off the walls, doors don't close, and on and on. Decades of neglect and a failure to build new buildings or close decrepit old ones have left the city with a royal mess.
But giving the school system $1 billion to fix its buildings makes no sense. Three main reasons: 1) New buildings do little or nothing to improve the quality of education; look at the test scores at the few new D.C. facilities that have been built in the past decade. They show no edge over the most decrepit buildings. 2) Beautiful new schools won't help children learn unless the new facilities are accompanied by an overhaul of the system's administrative and teaching staff. 3) This school system has no history of wisely spending large sums of money. To the contrary, it has a sad and consistent record of blowing money, big time.
The politicians say no, it was the congressionally-imposed Army Corps of Engineers that mucked up the last attempt to renovate D.C. schools. Sure, the Army did a mediocre job. But that's just a distraction from the point that matters: the District system itself has a depressingly horrible record of maintaining and building schools.
Here's a golden oldie that might help remind us of the way things work:
From the Washington Post archives, February 1, 1987:
An $ 8 Million D.C. School Nobody Wants;
Unit for Disabled Obsolete, Unfinished
By Marc Fisher, Washington Post Staff Writer
Thirteen years after it was conceived, the District's $ 8 million vocational school for the handicapped sits behind a fence, unfinished, obsolete and in need of up to $ 6 million in repairs.
The sprawling building at H Street and New Jersey Avenue NW was supposed to be a state-of-the-art example of education for the handicapped, a two-story building with ramps and wide hallways, light sensors for the deaf and Braille signs for the blind. But soon after the Pre-Vocational Center for the Handicapped was planned, Congress decided to put the disabled in regular classes instead of segregating them.
"If the planning had begun three years later, that building would never have been built," said Doris Woodson, the District's assistant superintendent for special education. "It got to a point where it was too late to turn back."
Today, the school is 64 percent complete, and D.C. School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie has asked a task force to decide whether to raze the building, complete it as a vocational school for both handicapped and nonhandicapped children, or stick to the original plan.
Whatever the committee decides, it will be expensive. The city says design and planning errors have left the two-story building with major problems:Even though the building was designed expressly for handicapped students, some corridors are only five feet wide, one foot less than the city code requires in schools.
Interior walls built of plywood must be torn down and replaced with fire-retardant drywall to comply with the city code.
The entire roof has to be replaced because the original was built with gravel that in heavy rains would wash into the building's storm drains.
Support beams in some places, including an auto shop, must be rebuilt because they are not strong enough.
Fixing those problems, along with sags and cracks in the school's concrete floors, could increase the price of the building from $ 8 million to $ 14 million, according to Rufus Jones, project manager for the D.C. Department of Public Works.
"You just want to cry when you see that building now," said Vincent Gray, executive director of the D.C. Association for Retarded Citizens and a member of the committee that planned the building. "We have children with disabilities in substandard schools around the city, and it just hurts to see what could have been."
"To spend another $ 6 million is too high a price for a building that should never have been built," said D.C. Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), in whose ward the building is located. "The smartest thing to do may be to cut the losses and sell the property."
With every passing week construction problems mount. The building is fenced to protect it against vandalism, but work was stopped before some windows and walls were completed, leaving some structural steel to deteriorate from exposure to the weather. The city ordered work stopped last Feb. 28.
Finding fault for the flaws will take years of court battles, city and school officials say. Although the city concedes that it did not review the architect's plans to see that they conformed to the building code, the public works agency has asked the D.C. corporation counsel to get the architect, Fry Welch and Associates, and the contractor, A.A. Beiro Construction Co., to pay for the repairs.
The architect, who did not respond to repeated calls from The Washington Post, has told the city that he did nothing wrong. But a consultant hired by the city to examine the building concluded that "a majority of the problems were design flaws," Jones said.
The city contends that the contractor used an unapproved, high-chloride concrete mix that caused cracks and flaking in the school's floor. Clay Murray, vice president of Beiro, said the concrete was sufficiently strong; the problems, he said, stem from design flaws.
"We produce our bid on the theory that everything's been approved and gone over by the architect and the city," he said. If work were to resume on the building now, Murray said, it would take at least a year to complete the structure.
While argument over the center's future continues, the 300 to 500 handicapped children for whom it was intended attend other vocational schools with nonhandicapped children. That is what the federal government mandated in 1975, when Congress chose to "mainstream" the handicapped into regular classes.
Federal law and District school system rules say that "to the maximum extent possible, handicapped children should be educated with children who are not handicapped." Segregated facilities such as the Pre-Vocational Center have been strongly discouraged since 1975.
Why, then, was construction even begun on the District building?
"The public works process has a life of its own," said school board member Bob Boyd (Ward 6), chairman of the board's special education committee. "As far as I can tell, the school system was only vaguely aware that construction was going on. And even if we were aware, there's very little opportunity for the school system to oversee construction."
The city had several opportunities to halt the project. Planning for the Pre-Vocational Center began in 1973, when the school board first proposed to consolidate career training classes for the handicapped. In 1976, during hearings on the District budget, Congress balked at the plan and asked the city to consider renovation instead of new construction.
In 1977, two years after mainstreaming had become law, a $ 40,000 study commissioned by the school system concluded that a new building would cost less than renovations. The District next spent $ 298,000 on a design plan. Finally, in 1982, after the city agreed to close a section of First Street NW to accommodate the new building, the city approved the original plan. Construction began in 1984, and was halted last year.
Meanwhile, the school system complied with the mainstreaming edict by renovating schools at a cost of more than $ 18 million. Such solutions have been slow and imperfect, administrators agree. For example, the vocational school that many handicapped children now attend is at Terrell Junior High School at First and Pierce streets NW -- on the third and fourth floors.
D.C. Board of Education President R. David Hall (Ward 2) said the Pre-Vocational Center would never have been approved by the current board. "We have moved away from large one-ticket items," he said. "I would renovate several existing buildings rather than build one large center."
Boyd said the board should strongly consider refusing to accept the building and asking the city to sell the land as surplus. The land "is worth far more on the open market than the building is," he said.
Assistant superintendent Woodson said the task force leans toward finishing the building and using it as a vocational school for both handicapped and regular students. "It would be ludicrous to scrap the whole thing at this point," she said.
Jones said the city wants to finish the building. "It is salvageable," the project manager said. "I don't know what the schools' needs are, but from an engineering view it can be completed."
Even if the task force, which plans to issue its verdict by March 15, asks that the school be finished, construction is not likely to resume soon. The school board's proposed 1988 budget, now being considered by Mayor Marion Barry, includes no new money for the center. And if the board were to decide to finish the building using construction money that it expects Barry to propose next week in his budget next week, the Pre-Vocational Center would soak up nearly two-thirds of the school system's building budget.
The school building was eventually torn down, millions upon millions of dollars bulldozed into rubble.
By Marc Fisher |
February 7, 2006; 6:42 AM ET
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