- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 24, 2006

When the D.C. Council began debating two years ago how best to finance a long-term capital-spending plan for D.C. Public Schools, we stridently questioned whether the school system had the capacity to manage what was then projected to be a $2 billion project for an estimated 146 schools. The answer is a resounding no.

D.C. Auditor Deborah Nichols thoroughly reviewed the modernization of McKinley Technical High School, which was pegged by city officials as the crowning public jewel along “tech alley” near Florida and New York Avenues NE. Having closed McKinley in 1997 because of a deteriorating physical plant, declining enrollment and pervasive violence in and around the school, school officials and Mayor Williams proposed an ambitious plan that would turn McKinley Tech into a school that offers information and broadcast technologies, as well as biomedical sciences. But what began as a $25 million project ended up costing taxpayers an unbelievable $81 million. Why?

Mrs. Nichols clearly articulates what all went wrong. According to the Sept. 6 audit:

1) “Inadequate advance planning by DCPS”;

2) “Contract modifications which changed the scope of work”;

3) “Errors and/or omissions by the architect/designer”;

4) Failure by school officials “to adequately monitor, review, and approve contract modifications issued by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.”

If all that doesn’t prove that the school system is incapable of rebuilding its inventory, consider this startling conclusion by Mrs. Nichols: In addition to inadequate monitoring and oversight, “DCPS failed to adequately, if at all, review invoice submitted by USACE” — that is, the Army Corps of Engineers.

What’s more is that while the new McKinley Tech reopened in the fall of 2004 and cost overruns already exceed $56 million, the final “close-out of the project” is not in hand because additional work remains undone — including seating and lighting for the auditorium. So the total cost remains up in the air.

The School Modernization Financing Act of 2006, which the council passed and the mayor signed earlier this year, orders the city’s chief financial officer to begin transferring money for school modernization into the hands of school officials at the start of the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Superintendent Clifford Janey already has announced how he plans to spend that money: He wants $2.3 billion to build or modernize more than 120 schools.

McKinley Tech is a quasi-phenomenal, nearly 80-year-old school house with several amenities worth bragging about, including a digital infrastructure, five chemistry labs and a new library. Yet even at a cost of $81 million it is an unfinished product, and whether it raises the academic standing of its students is another unknown. Obviously, the time to get on the frontend of the superintendent’s spending plan is now — before the wrecking balls start swinging.

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