- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 27, 2000

In 1992 D.C. officials began discussing plans to take on the problem of the city's aging schools. Some they would modernize. Some they would close and, possibly, sell or lease to others. They finished the plan in 1997, but three years later remain unable to execute it.

Work on some of the small projects, such as new roofs that were part of the 1997 plan, only began this summer, and the work at one-third of the city's 146 schools will not be completed by the Sept. 5 opening of the 2000-2001 school year. To avert a delayed opening, officials might have to spend an additional $500,000.

This debacle should come as no surprise. A March 2000 audit conducted by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General concluded that "completion of the 'immediate needs' phase of the Long Range Facilities Master Plan by the year 2000 will not be accomplished." These needs include new roofs and heating and air-conditioning systems, renovations needed to abate longstanding fire and other safety hazards and to upgrade electrical systems.

Parents had hoped the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which the city contracted with for the work in 1997, would play a large role in solving the problems. Since 1997 the Corps and the city have signed several additional contracts and in fact, the audit said the Corps is the "lead agency" regarding school facilities.

One D.C. Council member, the audit said, "expressed concern about the expanded role of the Corps and the costs to the District of their expanded role has been called into question." And well that lawmaker should. The Corps, on its web site, says agreements with the D.C. government calls for "program and project management support for capital improvement projects, oversight of critical operations and and maintenance projects, assistance in developing the five-year capital improvements program budget, assessment of facilities and planning support for DCPS' long-term capital improvements program and assistance in developing the educational facilities long-range master plan."

To make matters worse, parents, teachers and others are under the impression that the community dialogues they have participated in since spring 1999 will, ultimately, decide which schools will be modernized and which neighborhoods will get new school houses. When will they be consulted?

This then is the District's idea of capital improvement for schools: Jot a few things down on paper, call it a plan, hand responsibility over to someone else and overspend the budget.

Superintendent Paul Vance has an opportunity to make a real mark in the District, just as he did when he was superintendent in Montgomery County. First, though, Mr. Vance must quiet some of the community dialogues and get folks to focus on the nuts and bolts of construction.

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