The Army Corps of Engineers came to the District in the late 1990s on an expensive mission: launch a massive overhaul of decrepit school buildings, which eventually included spending $80 million to replace ancient heating systems with brand-new boilers to last 25 years or more.Those with the responsibility for the physical plants of the schools over the past decades all point to budget cutting as the reason for their inability to maintain the buildings and the equipment.
Since then, 40 of the 55 renovated heating systems have broken down or needed major repair. Public schools officials failed to maintain the new equipment, leading to problems such as damage from mineral deposits that built up because the water was not properly treated, repair records and interviews show.
It would have cost just $100,000 a year to remove harmful minerals from the water flowing into all of the more than 400 boilers in the public schools. But maintenance officials say there was never enough money for it in their budget.
As a result, heating systems old and new have been breaking down all over the school district. Administrators had to sink more than $10 million into emergency repairs this year alone, prompted by cold classrooms at 71 schools in February that displaced hundreds of children.
The failing boilers are a testament to the school system's longstanding inability to keep its buildings in shape or make the best of huge infusions of money. This decade, records show, the schools have spent more than $116 million to replace or overhaul heating and air-conditioning units, including the Army Corps projects. This winter, officials trucked in temporary boilers for seven schools where the systems have failed.
The District's water is "hard," or heavy with minerals such as magnesium and calcium carbonate. Left untreated in a steam boiler, it leaves deposits that can clog pipes and corrode the inner workings.
At Spingarn Senior High School in Northeast, the Corps put in four new boilers and pipe work in 2001 for about $3.9 million, records show. The units now sit in pools of rusty water, beyond repair.
Some officials say the problems' roots are in the cutbacks in budget and staffing that accelerated during the city's fiscal crises of the past 15 years.All of the fingerpointing is to be expected in a city where not nearly enough officials have taken responsibility for their jobs.
"There hasn't been adequate resources to do any maintenance. Period," said Paul Taylor, who has been deputy director of the schools' facilities department for two years. Moving his hands apart and then closer together, he said: "This is how much you need, this is how much you got. Something is not going to get done."
Sarah Woodhead, who ran the facilities department from 2001 to 2003, said slashed budgets forced her to focus on emergencies and ignore preventive maintenance. "It's not just a risky thing to do; it's a guaranteed failure," she said. "I think it's a tragic situation."
Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Mayor Adrian Fenty and Allen Lew, the School Construction manager, all have a massive task before them. According to Lew's office, there is some $120 million in outstanding repairs (this in addition to the $80 million spent since spring of 2007) and more repair orders coming in daily.
What seems to be different is that Lew and Fenty seem to want the burden of getting in front of the physical plant maintenance issue. But the problems extend very far back, a not uncommon situation in DC schools. Aggravating the problem, of course, is politics. Over the past decades, efforts to fix the physical plants have been, if not hijacked, certainly heavily influenced by politics. During the City's financial crisis, repairs and other matters took a very backseat to what ever was deemed more important by the financial control board or by Congress or by anyone with enough power to move things in their direction. The problem of course, is that no one gave a damn about the schools cause students don't vote. So once again, the schools took a back seat.
Now Lew and Fenty are faced with another education-related crisis and one that will take money and manpower to fix. Of course, given enough resources, you can fix almost anything. But will the DC City Council give Fenty and Lew enough money to make the fixes or just enough money to say "We gave you the money but you didn't fix it." A certain recipe for disaster awaits.
What could be beneficial is for Rhee and the DC Teachers Union, the Administrators Union and the Engineers Union to step up to the microphone and dare the City Council to short change them in the repairs.
I am not sure of the budget calculations, but it is like that physical plant needs are not part of the per pupil spending formula, but it might be safe bet to say that the District is spending tens of thousands of dollars per student on physical maintenance and getting nothing in return for their investment.