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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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Please email us to report offensive comments.

DC schools aren't built for children. The kids are merely pimped out as a reason to channel public funds to contractors, who in turn, contribute a cut of the cash back into the campaigns of the politicians who landed them the contract. A school that actually gets built is a possible side effect, but more likely a bad job generates more revenue for both contractors and politicians. People care about money, not the weak. Besides, the handicapped get their parking spaces and that should make them happy.

Posted by: Pat | February 7, 2006 8:44 AM

A tale of questionable planning and management. A project 75% over budget. Yep, that's a horror story all right. But what's the alternative to good management and planning? Not to fund schools or other public works projects?

Posted by: Mark | February 7, 2006 10:34 AM

You write that "new buildings do little or nothing to improve the quality of education" and I'll buy that. But even if a safe, clean, dry, temperature-controlled building improves test scores not one whit, a civilized society still owes its children a place to go to school in a place better than the ones you describe, better than a building in which "ceilings leak, the gym floors buckle, paint chips off the walls, doors don't close, and on and on."

Responsible communities send their children to decent schools even if the safe, healthful structure whether it is key to better learning or not. You've established that improving the instruction (and the educational outcomes) at DC schools is an issue separate from the buildings themselves, writing that "new schools won't help children learn unless the new facilities are accompanied by an overhaul of the system's administrative and teaching staff." Fine. Given.

But until that day comes, don't you want children to arrive every day at a place better than one where "ceilings leak, the gym floors buckle, paint chips off the walls, doors don't close, and on and on"?

So a better building doesn't raise test scores. I have plenty of other reasons to want the kids in my neighborhood to have a safe, pleasant, comfortable, respectable school. I want to see the academics improve, too, but there is absolutely no logical, moral reason the two goals cannot coexist on separate, parallel tracks.

Stop thinking about a school building's only worth as a means to an end. It has value as its own goal.

Posted by: Elizabeth | February 7, 2006 10:37 AM

We all know that good, creative and dedicated teachers are essential to quality education and that demand for such teachers far exceeds supply. They may be more inclined to teach in DC schools if they are not decrepit.

By the way, Mr. Fisher, aren't your children enrolled in private schools in DC? I wonder what those schools look like and whether you would have sent your children to these institutions if they were crumbling, unsafe, unhealtlhy structures.

Posted by: Tracy | February 7, 2006 11:00 AM

Yes, my kids do attend a private school, and yes, its physical plant is in good shape. But in my own schoolgoing career, I attended public schools that were in lousy condition and schools that were in fine shape, and neither then nor in 20 years of writing about education have I seen any correlation between building conditions and quality of schooling.
The D.C. schools should be fixed because it is obscene to send children to buildings as decrepit as so many DCPS facilities are. But I cannot trust the DC school board to spend a billion dollars remotely wisely. If the District council and the school board were really interested in the welfare of the city's children, they would insist on an independent building authority that would supervise all spending and all planning on these projects. The failure to do so shows that their primary goal is to preserve their own ability to hand out contracts and play political games with the future of the city's kids.

Posted by: Fisher | February 7, 2006 11:18 AM

So what's the answer? Do we not spend money on schools from fear that the money might get wasted? Is there any reason to believe that an "independent building authority" would do any better job than elected officials that are at least in theory accountable to the voters? Wasn't the Control Board "independent," and look at the bang-up job they did.

Posted by: DC Parent | February 7, 2006 11:32 AM

Despite the unfortunate physical condition of the District's schools, I am a parent who chooses to use them. I urge other parents I know to do the same, and to be involved in the process.

Turn the argument around. Suppose DCPS already had up-to-date, modern facilities that were physically inviting.

Would the growing number of middle/upper-middle class families in the District increasingly choose public schools over private and the limited number of charters available?

Wouldn't the public schools perform much better if they had a greater percentage of students with two college educated parents who read to their pre-school aged children daily before putting them into the system?

To leave things as they are creates a three-tiered education system in the District of Columbia:

1. The private education system, where schools can cherry pick their students and reject anyone with learning/behavioral issues or without the ability to pay.

2. The public charter school system, that is funded at the expense of the public school system. The charters, which do not perform better nationally than the public system, reduce the number of students counted in the public system, and therefore reduce the budget for individual schools within the District.

3. The public schools have no choice but to take anyone who's left, which remains the majority of the children of the District of Columbia. Disproportionately, these children lack the same level of opportunity within the home and the community as the pupils in the other groups.

Posted by: Parent of DCPS students | February 7, 2006 11:38 AM

Wow -- In 20 years of writing about education you've never seen a correlation between building conditions and quality of schooling? Ok, I'll give you one: the air conditioners at my children's DC public school are in such bad repair that there were many days this September when the teachers could instruct for only part of the day. They children were simply overheated and too wilted to focus on schoolwork when the afternoon sun came around.

And what about the point made above about recruiting skilled teachers? As a journalist, if given a choice, would you work in a filthy, unsafe, unairconditioned office building or would you choose something cushier? Why doesn't the same rationale apply to teachers?

Posted by: DC Mom | February 7, 2006 11:39 AM

I suppose that if I don't agree with or like your commentary I need to go burn some building down?? What's happening to our world?
Kids deserve a safe,decent place to live,learn, and go to school whether or not it actually helps instructions.

Posted by: Dissent | February 7, 2006 12:29 PM

As a product of DC Public Schools and a current teacher in PG County Schools, I believe that no child deserves to go to school in a cesspool. Do you all realize what these children have to go home to nightly? School should be a sanctuary, not just a place to dump these poor souls for 8 hours daily. No, it won't increase test scores, but it will actually show that someone actually does care and gives them a comfortable place to live. I do not believe that DC officials are the best money managers at all, but that does not mean we can't give children what they deserve--which is a chance! Oh wait, I forgot...bringing more business into the District is more important.

Posted by: Mr. Brown | February 7, 2006 12:51 PM

If your point is that the schools should be fixed for their own sake, but that you don't trust DC to do that without wasting money, why did two out of three of your lead arguments deal with educational outcomes? So now you see quality buildings as a self-contained and worthwhile goal but identify DC's wasteful incompetence as an impediment to this legitmate goal? If this is your position, I'd kill the bullet-points on instruction and test scores. They're useless and aggravating.

Posted by: Elizabeth | February 7, 2006 12:57 PM

Projects have been managed poorly in the past, so they shouldn't happen now? Facilities don't equal new test scores so they shouldn't be fixed? It doesn't make sense. I understand your skepticism in handing funds over to an agency that has not managed them well. So, perhaps you would want to see some controls happen. But, the buildings are falling apart, and that results in safety issues, increased costs, etc. etc. The school district needs an overhaul, and this is one step. It's probably the easiest step in some respects, because it doesn't deal with human issues. But, at least it's a step. The status quo isn't exactly working for the city.

Posted by: Katie | February 7, 2006 1:00 PM

Mr. Fisher,

I challenge you to do more research on your first two assertions. There is research to support the theory that poor school conditions adversely affect the student achievement. If one did a layman’s search using the google search engine, you will get several hits of article that lean in this direction. I challenge you to do more scholarly research using peer reviewed articles to develop a more informed opinion on the issue. How can one say that an overheated building would not distract a young child trying to learn? It takes an exceptional staff to overcome this obstacle.

This leads me to my second challenge of your assertions. The DC Public School system has some great teachers as well as some average and a few bad teachers. I find it appalling that you assume that the system is filled with sub par teachers. I graduated from Dunbar HS in 1988 with honors and I went on to earn a Mechanical Engineering degree from NC State University in 1993. Furthermore, I have had a very successful career with a fortune 100 organization that allowed my wife to stay home with our children until she wanted to go back to work. Finally, I will earn my masters degree in management this fall. I have many classmates that have gone on to do great things but at the same time there are others that have not done much with their lives.

I am using myself as an example to show that there are great teachers in the school system and they should not be completely blamed for the shortcomings of the student achievement. Before you pass judgment on the teachers look at the history of the city to determine what caused student achievement to tumble over the last 20 years. Here are a few examples to wet your appetite: the crack epidemic of the late 80’s early 90’s, teenage pregnancy, single parenthood, and gang violence.

This school year my wife, who is a teacher, decided to go back to work. She chose to DCPS. She has been impressed by the professionalism and dedication of her colleagues. I ask you to spend some time researching the credentials of the teachers before you pass judgment. My wife and I could have put our child into private school but we found a wonderful Montessori school in Langdon ES and chose to enroll our child there.

In conclusion, DCPS is not on par with some of its neighbors but the system, government, and families are striving to improve our student performance. Our children must understand there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Posted by: Keith W. DCPS product and parent of DCPS student | February 7, 2006 3:13 PM

Mr Fisher:
Thanks for the suggestion re: independant authority. It's as good a suggestion as any. I'm glad to see you recognize the staggering level of favoritism and insider dealing that goes on! A skeptic might posit, however, that such a building authority (which itself would cost $$) would somehow be subverted into yet another refuge for the well-connected in DC's endless circle of pork. Given the choices, I'd still rather see the money there even in the likelihood that some would be wasted (with the hope against hope that it wouldn't be) than not there to be used for schools at all.

Posted by: Mark | February 7, 2006 5:25 PM

1 Billion More? What for?

According to a new website ( set up by a group of education and business leaders, the District of Columbia spends 60% more than the national average in total expenditures per public school student (for 2003 it was $14,542 vs $9,136), while our public school students rank at or near the bottom in math and reading proficiency scores.

Included in these outlays include captital improvement expenditures. The DC public shools spend 156% more per public school student than the national average for school building improvements (for 2003 it was $2,573 vs $1,003), while our facilities continue to rot in disrepair.

In response to the fraud, waste and abuse that guts a yearly school budget already exceeding $1 billion, the council, in its infinite wisdom, has decided on a plan to spend even more money and to delay tax cuts on DC residents and businesses to pay for the increased spending.

Instead of spending even one more red cent on DC public schools, we (and the Council in particular) need to determine why we as a city spend more money than just about every jurisdiction in this country and continue to suffer catastrophic academic results.

I think we all need to respectfully ask the Council to explain to us why they have decided to spend more money instead of figuring out why we spend so much now and accept so little in return!

Posted by: Joe | February 7, 2006 6:15 PM

In fact, the Council has figured out why DC spends more per pupil than most urban jurisdictions and gets less. (There was an article on this in The Post just this week.) A primary problem is physical plant costs (too many buildings, too few students), and the Council is requiring the school system to get rid of excess space as part of this funding package. They will also have to submit to regular audits, as required by the council.

Posted by: Tracy | February 8, 2006 9:43 AM

Though I live far from the city, if there are children in these deplorable circumstances anywhere, it is a problem for every American.

Clearly, the education system needs help.

The city council is to blame. It is focused on baseball until late in the night, you will never get to a solution.

The media is to blame, too. They are more focused on baseball because it will help them sell more papers and watch more TV.

The people are to blame. Look at the number of responses to Fisher's baseball blogs.
Until you stop spending all your time focusing on mindless entertainment with no long-term social value, you will always have a problem.

Perhaps it is time for arbitration here. The federal government should sieze the school properties, use half a billion put them in good repair. The other half can be governed by the city under court supervision to improve the quality of life for the teachers and staff.

But hey, you people have a job to do. Fix your schools. Get off the couch, get off the grouch, get involved. Until it is fixed it is all of your disgrace.

Posted by: Truth B Told | February 9, 2006 8:24 AM

It's strange to me that the Council is prepared to go to any lengths to get baseball, but they just throw money at the schools and hope that it will all work out. Get rid of the graft and corruption in the system (as eloquently put by the first poster) before channelling $1 billion (billion!!!!) into it.

At the end of the day, as with this baseball foolishness, we're just throwing good money after bad.

Posted by: puzzled | February 9, 2006 10:39 AM

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