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Broken promise
Unfinished school prolongs problems
(Published February 7, 2005)

Staff Writer

More than four years ago, D.C. residents envisioned fully renovated, state-of-the-art facilities at Randle Highlands Elementary School, complete with a brand new library, gymnasium, administrative offices and classrooms.

But more than a year after it was set to be completed, the project is still not done, and frustrated Randle Highlands teachers and parents are pleading with D.C. Public Schools officials to keep their promise and finish the school.

Randle Highlands was approved for modernization in early 1999. Plans that are dated March 2001 show the school was to consist of three main buildings. Two new structures a classroom building and an activity building were to be built, and the existing school building, built in 1911, was to be revamped.

School officials had anticipated the entire project would be completed by December 2003, but cost overruns caused work to be halted. Renovations on the old school were never started, and community members said faculty and students at Randle Highlands continue to suffer the consequences.

Despite being incomplete, the Randle Highlands Elementary School project has been touted as an accomplishment by the school system. A drawing of the school was used in a December 2002 summary of the schools' fiscal 2004 operating budget as an example of the facilities advancements DCPS hoped to achieve for all of its schools.

Darrell Baker, a resident of Hillcrest whose daughter attends pre-kindergarten at the school, calls it "amazing" that the school has been considered "nearly complete" and compared it to "buying a car with no tires on it."

The students have no library since it is planned to be built in the renovated old school, he said. Promised space for music education or arts programs also remains to be built.

With approximately 500 students, the new school is "vastly overcrowded" and has little office space, said Crystal Lewis, president of the Randle Highlands Parent Teacher Association. The building has a student capacity of 520.

Principal Theresa Alexis-Williams has her office in the teacher's lounge, Baker said, where she has to keep some of her files over the sink. Tape placed over the "Teacher's Lounge" placard on the front door reads "Principal's Office," he said.

Construction of the new activity building which contains a brand new gymnasium, indoor playroom, music room and outdoor playground began in November 2003 and was recently completed. But officials said the new building cannot be used until an occupancy permit is obtained.

Cornell Brown, the school system's new director of facilities management, said the building has been having problems with its fire alarm system, which has caused the delay in obtaining a permit. He said he expects the permit will be approved this month.

Currently, the children play on a small community tennis court adjacent to the school for physical education and recreation, and teachers rotate usage of the cafeteria for physical education and lunch.

"We are asking you, board members and superintendent, to please finish what you started," Kimberly Edley, a volunteer at the school, pleaded during the Board of Education's capital budget hearing on Feb. 2. "We don't want to lose the momentum that has been started in the process of modernization."

Baker said he is considering sending his daughter to private school next year because of the frustrations he's faced in trying to amend the school's facilities.

A reporter for The Common Denominator was given a tour of the new gym and the adjoining facilities on Feb. 3, but was prevented by on-site school personnel from touring the new building, despite making prior arrangements with DCPS headquarters officials to do so. The reporter was accompanied by an Army Corps of Engineers representative and a DCPS contractor involved with the project.

The estimated cost for the entire project was $20.8 million, according to the fiscal 2004-2009 capital improvement budget. That cost included planning and design, land acquisition, program management, construction, and furniture and equipment for each building.

Lucian Coleman, deputy director of capital projects for DCPS, said construction at Randle Highlands occurred in several phases. DCPS has completed most phases of the project and is looking to begin the final phase the renovation of the old school building.

That structure is planned to house a media center, resource room, computer lab, various reading rooms, administrative offices, learning centers, after-school programs and head start programs.

Coleman said $750,000 is already allocated in the fiscal 2006 budget for the project, and he and other DCPS officials are pushing the Board of Education to allocate $4.25 million more. Approximately $5 million is needed to complete the construction, he said.

"We have a commitment to the community....We are fully committed to this project," Coleman said.

Option D, the school system's proposed new facilities plan, will scale down some school construction projects, which will allow some money to be re-allocated toward Randle Highlands, Brown said.

District IV school board member William Lockridge, who represents Wards 7 and 8, said he has been "very supportive" of Randle Highlands and is confident the school will get the funding it needs to finish construction.

"If DCPS can find money to finish McKinley Technology High School, it can find money for Randle Highlands Elementary School," Lockridge said.

McKinley, which opened last year, came in approximately $33 million over budget, he said.

Coleman said he hopes funds will be available by summer to begin gutting the interior of the old Randle Highlands building. He said DCPS officials will present details about the construction plans to community members at the next PTA meeting.

PTA President Lewis noted the next meeting will be held in March, but said she was not yet aware that DCPS officials would be attending.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator