Staff Editorial: Officials mustn’t dismiss school modernization costs

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The Duke Ellington School of the Arts is located at 3500 R St. NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/August 2017)

Last month, the District unveiled the long-awaited, much-scrutinized renovation of Burleith’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts — a $165 million project that cost more than twice the originally requested budget.

“Let ’em talk about how much it cost,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said at the school’s opening ceremony. “You’ll see; it’s worth it.”

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It is true that the school is a jaw-dropping masterpiece. The modernization artfully retrofitted a historic but dated 1898 high school with modern educational amenities and state-of-the-art performing arts spaces.

But we’re troubled by the mayor’s dismissive attitude toward legitimate cost complaints. The Ellington renovation has become synonymous with school-modernization boondoggles, and an exquisite result is hardly proof that money hasn’t been wasted. The project’s planning and construction frequently revealed indifference to cost containment. In her remarks, Ms. Bowser acted as though these issues were immaterial as long as the school building turned out well. We vehemently disagree.

To be clear, we do support the Ellington program. The nation’s capital should indeed offer an exceptional arts education to its young people, and Ellington is ably preparing its students both for artistic careers and for college. Part of that success does indeed come from amenities such as a professional-grade theater space.

But Ellington is symptomatic of a broader issue with the District’s school modernizations. So many projects have blown their original budgets, and for so long. Ellington, the most expensive renovation, represents the biggest number — but doubling the original cost estimate is nothing new for the District. Whether intentionally or not, officials routinely provide lowball estimates while securing D.C. Council approval, make grand promises to the community that such a budget would never fufill, break ground and then demand more money to avoid leaving the school half-built. That’s not acceptable. And this obviously faulty process surely means we pay more for what could have been achieved more affordably with proper planning.

Furthermore, the Ellington project in particular has tied up tens of millions of capital dollars that otherwise could have gone to other schools that also need upgrades. Reckless spending in one part of the District directly affects the parents, students and staff of schools whose promised renovations have had their budgets sucked dry by another project. The strain is also felt by taxpayers citywide.

We’re glad that many council members have expressed frustration with these expensive school modernizations, and we hope they can properly execute their oversight role. While a well-executed modernization is important, it’s essential that our public dollars are efficiently spent while achieving that desired result.