Long-sought renovations to Ward 4’s West Education Campus are due to begin soon, after the D.C. Council adopted a capital budget last week that provides $78.5 million in funding over the next four fiscal years.
The 1970s-era building at 1338 Farragut St. NW, which serves 303 students in pre-K through eighth grade, is D.C. Public Schools’ last “open classroom” facility to be renovated. Right now at West, separate rooms are divided by thin curtains or mobile chalkboards. Several kindergarten and first-grade spaces on the ground floor lack windows. The heating and air conditioning are unreliable, and the third floor is inaccessible to students with disabilities.
The council’s budget — which will need a second, final vote on June 13 — allocates $1 million for renovation planning in fiscal year 2018, $7.5 million in 2019 and $35 million each in 2020 and 2021. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget had offered a slightly larger allocation of $82 million, but the first portion of those funds wouldn’t have become available until fiscal year 2019.
The renovation is still far enough away that the scope of the project hasn’t yet been determined. However, the West community is excited that a recent surge in activism — including testimony at council hearings and letters to key officials — has paid off after previous failed attempts to expedite the project. But they remain frustrated that a school listed as the No. 5 priority for modernizations on a citywide 2016 council list has had to push so hard for what they see as imperative.
“This group of parents banded together and were very active in pushing for it. I credit them with making their voices known across the council to make this happen,” said 16th Street Heights resident Josh Hertzberg, former president of the school’s Parent, Staff, and Community Organization. “Sadly it seems to be just a matter of political pressure.”
The funds might have been easier to advance to fiscal year 2018 had Bowser lined up a smaller allocation for the West modernization, according to David Grosso, chair of the council’s Committee on Education.
“For some reason the mayor put in $82 million to redo West,” said Grosso, an at-large council member. “I still can’t figure out why it needs to be that much money. One simply can’t take out a Lending Tree loan for an amount this large.”
Jennie Niles, deputy mayor for education, told The Current that the increase reflected a recent update of the school system’s specifications for school modernization needs.
Grosso successfully pushed in recent weeks for an earlier allocation of West funds. However, a majority of the council members balked at his calls to delay planned citywide tax cuts and allocate some of the additional revenue to school modernizations.
Ward 4 Council member Brandon Todd also cheered the earlier funds for West, especially since the project was budgeted at less than half of its current allocation when it was originally proposed a few years ago.
“We’ve come a long way with West,” Todd said in an interview. “I will continue to push to make sure we’re doing even more.”
City officials attribute previous West modernization delays to a dearth of nearby swing space for students from schools under construction. Though parents had proposed that students “swing on site” in trailers on the grounds, the school system ruled that proposal unfeasible.
West students are now slated to relocate during construction to Sharpe Health School at 4300 13th St. NW in Petworth, which currently serves as swing space for students from the under-construction Bancroft Elementary in Mount Pleasant.
As interest in D.C. Public Schools increases in many parts of the city, requests for school modernization funding have evolved into a heightened competition.
Several West parents, for instance, were frustrated to see that Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh advanced $23 million of a planned $30 million renovation of Eaton Elementary to fiscal year 2018 from 2022, by reallocating funds from her Committee on Transportation and the Environment. They point out that Eaton — located at 3301 Lowell St. NW in Cleveland Park — sits more than 20 schools below West on the council’s 2016 priority list.
No funds were taken away from West to help Eaton. But some Ward 4 residents still aren’t happy to see Eaton pushed earlier in the schedule than West. Cheh doesn’t see her actions that way.
“I had to pay for my ward and try to get what’s best for my ward,” Cheh said. “The money could not have been sent over except for this purpose.”
But the city’s executive branch has concerns about shifting the Eaton modernization earlier. No swing space locations near Eaton appear to be available for students during the upcoming modernization, Niles said.
“If there’s no swing space, there’s no swing space,” Niles said. “The hard part for Eaton is that there’s no planning here. Eaton’s a particularly complicated site.”
Eaton has struggled with overcrowding issues in recent years, and faces the imminent arrival of the Ward 3 family homeless shelter at 3320 Idaho Ave. NW a half-mile away. Some community members think children from that shelter might end up attending Eaton. Cheh is less certain that prediction will come true, but she said she wants to be sure that a school already overdue for modernization gets it before that possibility comes to fruition.
“They’ve been patient for years. They’ve had a need for modernization for years,” Cheh said. “The main fact is they need to be modernized and the sooner the better. And it’s their turn.”
Niles expressed frustration that the council’s school modernization moves deviate from the priority list, which was established to avoid accusations that the council was choosing projects based on politics, rather than looking substantively at school needs.
“We agreed for the last two years that we would use more of the objective criteria,” Niles said, “and [that we would] not have amounts of money put into the [capital improvement plan] that change the order of what we established to be an objective way of saying which schools need to be modernized when.”
Council members don’t always see eye to eye on the root cause of these modernization disputes. Chairman Phil Mendelson told The Current he thinks D.C. Public Schools and related agencies need to be more judicious with spending, citing the Duke Ellington School for the Arts renovation in Burleith, which has ballooned to a budget of $180 million, more than $100 million over the original allocation.
“The charter schools don’t spend anywhere near that much money and they have nice facilities,” Mendelson said. “That’s not about whether we should be doing the modernizations. If anything, it’s about our wasting money, not whether there’s enough money.”
But Grosso thinks there’s a deeper problem to resolve. Bowser allocated $1.28 billion this year to the D.C. Public Schools six-year modernization plan, compared to $1.33 billion last year and $1.77 billion five years ago. In Grosso’s view, those declines in funding are slowing down progress.
“The mayor has basically refused to recognize that there are needs to be spending more on — important, vital needs like social services and education,” Grosso said. “We were able to fix a lot of this and I’m really proud of that. I was hoping we could do more.”
Niles points out that the allocation for school modernizations did increase from 2016 to 2017, even amid a broad pattern of decline. She attributes the recent reductions to an upcoming “capital pinch” that’s built into the city’s broader budget during fiscal years 2019 and 2020.
“We have some other debt that we need to pay, so we don’t have that available for capital programs,” Niles said. “That’s a constraint the mayor has to live within.”