- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 14, 2005

When I last visited Elizabeth Davis’ English class at Sousa Junior High School, the plaster from the classroom ceiling fell down on the paper exhibits her students had designed to commemorate the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Luckily, no one was injured.

Yesterday, Ms. Davis was busily cleaning, preparing to move her materials to another section of the 50-plus-year-old school in Southeast, which is slated for long-overdue renovations.

Although the popular teacher is concerned about remaining in the building while the work is being done, she is pleased that Sousa made it off the long list of school buildings that must await another round of political wrangling before they get the funding for modernization, repair or renovation.

“It’s not safe, it’s not healthy and it’s not practical,” Ms. Davis said. “As a teacher, I am keenly concerned about the safety conditions under which students will be forced to learn over the next two years while Sousa is under renovations, especially with the high levels of asbestos.”

Ms. Davis, a teachers union representative, was among the educators, parents, students, school personnel and community members who testified before the D.C. Council to get the School Modernization Financing Act of 2005 passed. The measure, which has nine co-sponsors on the council, would dedicate $60 million in revenue from the D.C. Lottery that currently goes into the general fund to pay for up to $1 billion in revenue bonds to finance the reconstruction, renovation and emergency maintenance of public school facilities.

“This bill would afford DCPS, for the first time, listing a designated stream of funds to modernize and repair dilapidated schools,” she said.

Yesterday, the bill was voted out of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, where it faced the strongest opposition, and now moves forward to the education committee, where four of the members are co-sponsors.

Roger Newell, a communications specialist with the Teamsters, which represents blue-collar workers in the D.C. schools, was relieved when the bill had “a victory in terms of the legislative process in getting over the first hurdle.”

Mr. Newell said the reason the bill moved forward was that the “community mobilized and demanded that money be spent on schools.” Emboldened, his group will “build an even bigger and broader coalition to put additional pressure on folks.” After all, as Mr. Newell said, six D.C. schools in daily use today were built in the 1800s. “Anybody who’s been in a D.C. school knows they are in desperate need of a major infusion of cash,” he said.

Critics — including council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and baseball’s biggest build-it-at-any-cost booster — say the measure is too expensive; the debt service alone on the bonds is estimated to be $130 million annually. Also, opponents contend that school system officials cannot properly manage the funds they already have. They think they city could close some neighborhood schools and sell the valuable real estate to pay for renovations or to build new facilities.

“The mayor and council did not have any problem identifying bond money to build a baseball stadium. They had no problem finding money, $250 million, to lend private schools,” Ms. Davis said. “And, how can the mayor even consider issuing $400 million in publicly funded bonds for the Marriott Corporation to build a hotel?” Good questions. Watch the slippery answers. But where there’s the political will, there’s a pot of public gold.

“The consensus among the community,” Ms. Davis said, “is that it shows District residents that [public] schools are clearly not a priority and [that] the mayor and council have decided that the children of the District, who are mainly African-American and poor, are castaways and not worth the same investment the mayor and the council are willing to put into baseball and hotels.”

After sitting through several council hearings on school budgeting, Ms. Davis said, “It’s annoying as an educator because we are speaking two different languages — they’re talking about warehousing students, and we’re talking about educating students.”

For example, she said the idea to consolidate — the nice word for close — public schools comes with no guarantee that class size won’t be increased. “Consolidation alone is not a solution because then you will have students in dilapidated buildings that are crowded,” she said. “The council cares about generating money; they are not educators and don’t know the research about the need to reduce class size especially in urban school districts to improve academic achievement.”

Does nothing ever change? For decades, the D.C. school system has suffered tenfold from all that ails urban school districts, including a revolving door of headmasters.

It’s time D.C. residents, who really care about the children who are not being educated properly in public schools, take a vocal and visible stand to force their leaders to stop all the political grandstanding.

Take no prisoners. Tell them to fix the problem now — or else.

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi has said, “It is not wise to borrow against revenue.” Mr. Evans has said, “It is unfair to give people expectations that cannot be met.” Obviously, these statements do not apply to their pet business projects.

To the average taxpayer, parent and teacher, such as Liz Davis, if you can beg, borrow and finagle the figures to buy a fully loaded Mercedes-Benz, you can find the will and the way to rob Peter to pay Paul so you can replace the plaster tiles in the ceiling that are falling down on the children.

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