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Still empty after all these years

Surplus schools blight neighborhoods, city moves slowly on disposition

(Published July 26, 1999)

By REBECCA CHARRY

Staff Writer

Peer through the barred, broken windows of Kingsman Elementary School and youíll see the story of D.C.ís surplus school facilities: books strewn across the floor, fixtures ripped from the ceiling, an obscenity scrawled on the blackboard. The last child walked out the door six years ago.

Since then, the decaying school has done little for the surrounding Capitol Hill neighborhood but attract vandals, drug users, and endless headaches, say neighborhood residents who have tried for years to find a buyer for the site.

But some say the D.C. government doesnít seem to want any buyers. Two recent neighborhood-friendly bids ó including one that met the asking price ó have been turned down, said DCPS real estate director Gerald Cooke.

The bidders, who have not yet officially been notified of the rejection, have all but given up. After three years of negotiations for the Kingsman site at 14th and E streets NE, executives at Fleet Business School recently found another site in Northwest Washington to open their vocational college.

"The money we spent pursuing that is unbelievable," said Fleet president Jim Graves. "Time is money and we lost three years. You just get so frustrated."

Graves said his company bid the school systemís asking price ó $461,000 ó but Cooke said the bid was rejected because it was "far too low." Cooke did not return calls seeking clarification.

So Kingsman sits. Pigeons fly in and out of broken windows while school administrators and elected officials battle over the disposition of Kingsman and dozens of similar unused school properties. School records show bids for Lovejoy, Pierce and Bryan schools also were recently turned down because the offers were deemed too low. The properties remain unused. Residents are furious.

"Itís absolutely criminal what they have let happen with Kingsman," said Suzanne Wells, a neighborhood resident who led efforts to get Kingsman sold. "Here were bidders who were bending over backwards to work with the community, who were offering to take this eyesore off their hands and pay them for it ó and they turned them down."

Cooke, who was hired about three months ago, said he inherited an office in complete disarray. It was without a director for seven months. Documents were missing. Work had come to a standstill. Now, several real estate brokers have been hired to help move the process along.

The city has taken in $8.6 million from sales of 10 closed schools since October 1997, Cooke said. Ten additional schools have been leased at a combined value of $1.1 million, he said.

But others say the process is still hampered by conflicting directives and lack of an overall plan.

On one hand, Congress and the control board decreed that the public school system must sell its surplus property at "market rates." Officials once estimated the city could raise $80 million for school renovation through sales of surplus property.

On the other hand, residents who live near closed schools say the goal should be finding a community-friendly tenant. If the tenant is good, they argue, the city should stop focusing on money and take what it can get to help the neighborhood.

"There comes a point where something is better than nothing," said D.C. City Councilwoman Sharon Am-brose, D-Ward 6, who represents the area around Bryan.

The school systemís insistence on getting the highest possible price has slowed the process drastically, stymieing efforts of charter schools and private developers, Ambrose said.

"Are you telling me we would rather go on paying to cut grass and board up windows on a vacant property? That makes zero sense to me," she said.

Ambrose faults Congress for setting an unrealistic financial goal.

"The idea that we could get (even) $70 million for those 53 properties was insane," Ambrose said. "It never made any sense to those of us who know the city."

While Ambrose and others exhort the DCPS real estate office to move as quickly as possible on the disposition of the remaining 20 or so schools up for sale or lease, others have issued calls to slow down.

"Until you have projections of population, you should not discard your buildings," said Sarah Woodhead, director of the 21st Century School Fund, a nonprofit facilities consulting group whose own facilities plan was rejected by city council two years ago. "Once you sell them, you may not be able to afford to buy them back. Some schools deserve to be closed, but some we need to look hard at before they disappear for good. If we sold everything thatís closed now, weíd be in bad shape."

The elected D.C. Board of Education recently called for school administrators to table all property disposition decisions until a long-range master facilities plan ó the cityís first since 1967 ó is completed at the end of this year. So far, the boardís request has gone unheeded.

"We canít just table everything until the facilities plan is finished," said Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, D-Ward 7, chairman of the councilís education committee. "We have to get this process moving."

Chavous said he agrees with Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., chair of the House appropriations subcommittee on the District, who recently suggested that control of surplus school property be returned to the mayor, as was previously the case.

The control board shifted control of surplus school property away from the mayor and the D.C. Department of Administrative Services to the school system in 1997, saying the mayorís office moved too slowly.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator