- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003

A D.C. Council member yesterday found dozens of maintenance problems at the University of the District Columbia campus, including broken stairs, elevators and even possible asbestos dust falling from rotting ceiling tiles.

Council member Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, discovered the problems during a tour of the campus in Northwest. School officials promised to repair the problems quickly.

“You have to show the students and visitors to the university that we have high standards,” Mr. Fenty said as he pointed to crumbling concrete stairs outside the gymnasium. “We are showing them that we don’t have high standards.”

Mr. Fenty said he would check up on the repairs periodically.

Darrell M. Williams Sr., president of the UDC graduate-student body, invited Mr. Fenty to tour the campus after The Washington Times reported last week that classrooms, libraries and other buildings had fallen into a state of disrepair at the District’s only public institution of higher education.

The deterioration of UDC’s buildings adds to the long-standing troubles of the land-grant university, which in past years has been plagued by financial mismanagement, poor academic performance and accreditation concerns.

“We are trying to get [the administration] to understand that they have to step up and make these things happen sooner rather than later,” Mr. Williams said. “As students, we want to give them the information they need to make rapid decisions and improve our campus.”

He said UDC President William L. Pollard, who took office a little more than a year ago, deserved some time to make the long-overdue improvements, but also needs to recognize the urgency of the needed repairs.

Mr. Pollard did not join the tour. Susan Saunders, UDC director of government affairs, came in his place. She said Mr. Pollard received short notice about the tour and a subsequent scheduling mix-up prevented him from attending.

In his first year at the school, Mr. Pollard has been criticized for excessive spending and hiring of family friends, including Wilhelmina M. Reuben-Cooke to high-level administrative positions. The D.C. Office of Campaign Finance is investigating whether Mr. Pollard violated standards of conduct for public officials in hiring her.

C. Girard Johnson, UDC director of campus services who accompanied the tour, said the city’s budget process prevents fast action on maintenance issues. But he said his staff was unaware of some of the problems discovered yesterday and promised Mr. Fenty that some repairs would be made in the next week.

The university was in the process of fixing elevators throughout the campus, replacing the broken escalator in the Student Services building, and planning to refurbish classrooms in every building, said Armando Prieto, Mr. Johnson’s executive assistant, who also joined the tour.

The administration had made and broken similar promises in the past, said Terrence Boykin, a UDC graduate who helped lead the tour.

“We can talk all day long, but nothing is happening and the students are suffering,” Mr. Boykin told the university officials.

Mr. Fenty agreed: “The students are rightfully frustrated because there have been promises made in the past, and there was no satisfaction that the promises were kept.”

After walking through three of the 10 campus buildings, Mr. Fenty drafted a list of more than three dozen problems that needed repairs.

Some were urgent, including the possible asbestos exposed through broken ceiling tiles in the basement of the Accounting, Finance and Economics Department, and the crumbling concrete stairs outside the gym.

“That’s something I think should be put on a high priority,” Mr. Fenty said of the possible asbestos contamination. Mr. Johnson said his staff, which was not aware of the problem, will conduct asbestos tests as soon as Monday.

As for the crumbling stairs outside the gym, Mr. Johnson said workers would patch the broken concrete by October. The stairs would be closed off in the meantime.

Other maintenance problems were minor, such as torn and stained carpets in the buildings, water damage on drop ceilings in classrooms and a large hole in the wall of a hallway in the Accounting, Finance and Economics Department.

Those had not been fixed in more than nine months.

However, Mr. Fenty said ignoring even minor repairs reflected badly on the university.

“I want the maintenance team to have a sense of urgency on these issues,” Mr. Fenty said as he stood next to the hole in the wall. “It’s a perception thing. You can’t leave it like that for nine months.”

The university’s capital budget for the last two years totaled about $21 million. But university officials said the money remains tied up in D.C. bureaucratic red tape.

For example, at the Accounting, Finance and Economics Department, the city allocated more than $1.7 million for capital improvements in fiscal 2002 and 2003. But the school only spent about $200,000 on designing improvements as fiscal 2003 draws to a close, Mr. Prieto said.

“That’s not a good thing,” Mr. Fenty told The Times. “If someone gives you money, you have to spend it. … You need to do the work. You need to work quick.”

It’s not that easy, said a university official who asked not to be identified.

“There [are] a lot of steps that have to be gone through. It is frustrating for the students. It is frustrating for the administration. It is frustrating for everyone,” the official said.

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