Four new schools to open

But officials, parents fear lack of funds will halt

completion of master plan to improve all buildings

(Published August 11, 2003)

By ERIN HENK

Staff Writer

Four new D.C. public schools – part of an ambitious 10-year facilities master plan – are scheduled to open for the upcoming 2003-2004 school year.

The new buildings, retaining the names of the schools they replaced – Kelly Miller Middle School, Noyes Elementary, Patterson Elementary and Cleveland Elementary – are but a few of the 147 schools incorporated into the school system’s plan to rebuild or significantly renovate all of its aging facilities.

However, school officials say inadequate funding due to budget cuts now threatens the program’s full implementation.

The Facilities Master Plan, originally approved by the D.C. Board of Education in 2000 after a series of community meetings, laid out the priorities for improving and modernizing the schools in order to fit the needs of students and meet stricter building standards. Prior to approval of the plan, the District hadn’t proposed a master plan to improve school buildings in more than 30 years.

For fiscal 2004, the school board proposed $313 million as a "necessary" amount to fund the schools’ capital improvements program. But that amount was slashed to $168 million in the budget approved for the schools by D.C. City Council and Mayor Anthony A. Williams. The fiscal 2004 budget is still awaiting congressional approval.

The average D.C. city school is about 60 years old and some buildings date back to the 1890s.

Typically, most cities keep funding their schools incrementally over time and invest year after year, said Sarah Woodhead, executive director of facilities for D.C. Public Schools.

"The city didn’t do that," Woodhead said. "This means we have situations that are not acceptable."

Miner Elementary, northeast of Capitol Hill in the Rosedale area, is one of the nearly completed schools in the Facilities Master Plan. Miner was opened to students in January, although Woodhead said some follow-up construction work will be completed this fall.

The school’s freshly constructed facade blends with the surrounding neighborhood. The checkered yellow and blue brick complement the similar patterns on nearby rowhouses. Inside, the well-lit yellow hallways are adorned with tree-shaped ceramic tile designs.

"It’s not ultra-fancy, but it’s really thoughtful," Woodhead said during a recent tour of some of the construction projects, as she pointed out Miner’s newest additions – a family resource center, a new kitchen, a well-equipped computer technology center, and a new gymnasium and auditorium.

"The Facilities Master Plan assesses schools on a case-by-case basis. We have to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the buildings," said Woodhead, who added that extensive community meetings have helped to evaluate the options.

Additionally, many schools have been deemed historic landmarks and are forbidden from being torn down.

"We have to get input and figure out the right approach, then DCPS determines what can be done within the budget," Woodhead said. "The city’s financial picture has changed in the two years since this was completed...the government is wary of issuing more bonds and more debt."

Brightwood Elementary, where new construction has yet to begin, is a striking contrast to Miner. The building’s age is evident by the peeling paint on its front columns and around the windows. The 1926 building is flanked by two mismatched additions, one made of metal, one of artificial brick, which were built to accommodate the growing student population during the 1970s and ’80s.

Inside, Brightwood’s hallways are dark and adorned with exposed wiring. There is only one multipurpose room, which is used for the gym, the auditorium and the cafeteria. A makeshift kitchen composed of one stove, a few metal racks and tables sits in the corner. The air-conditioning units are old and do not have enough power to cool the entire room. There are other deficiencies within the building, Woodhead notes: the nurse’s office is small and lacks a sink, a restroom and a medicine cabinet. The stairs are not equipped for handicapped children and limited power sources prevent the school from being able to access multimedia resources.

Brightwood’s renovation is currently in the process of being bid upon by architects. The school’s entire modernization is expected to take two years.

"It will shine much more when it’s designed to meet its needs," Woodhead said.

Modernization standards are set in all elementary, middle and high schools throughout the District. They include installing fire sprinklers, central air conditioning, technology centers, a security desk by the main entrance and at least two large multipurpose rooms to be used for dining or physical education classes. Components will be incorporated into each school based on the amount of space available, Woodhead said.

"This is not a one-size-fits-all [project]. We’re flexible," she said.

Woodhead admits to being among the frustrated school officials and parents who are worried that the Facilities Master Plan will not be funded adequately to be carried out.

"If funding dries up, we are back to Band-aids, which isn’t good enough," she said. "We still have a big challenge in front of us.... We will have to do fewer projects a year, but we can’t abandon this approach, because it’s the only way this is of service to our children."

Iris Toyer, co-chairman of the activist parent organization Parents United, expressed her concern over the lack of funding for the capital improvements plan as well.

"This really has to be planned out," she said. "This is a long process of contracting, finding architects, meeting with the community ... which takes a great deal of time. We need to know if there is a dollar commitment right now...otherwise there is no point."

Toyer said that the $21 million allotted for fiscal 2007 isn’t even enough to address the repair needs of the schools, let alone cover the planned construction costs. Toyer noted that before buildings are modernized, DCPS has to maintain buildings the school system already has.

"I understand the District has all kinds of financial problems, but [schools are] a priority," she said. "Building schools is a sound economic investment in terms of drawing new citizens to the city and providing positive turnaround for neighborhoods....We need to bring the city back."

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator