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The Bowser administration wants to postpone or eliminate funding for needed improvements at dozens of schools. At the same time, the budget for renovating the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown has ballooned to $178 million.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget for capital improvements would delay or abandon promised renovations at 20 or possibly more schools. At some of those schools, mice roam the classrooms, bathroom stalls lack doors, and halls are dim and dingy. One has no walls between classes.

DC Councilmember David Grosso, chair of the education committee has proposed new guidelines for funding school renovations. He’s asking for community input through an online survey that ends tomorrow.

While the budget would cut or delay many future renovations, it also seeks increases for projects that are already in progress or about to begin, including an additional $30 million for Ellington. That would bring the total cost of the renovation to about $300,000 for each of the 600 students at the application-only high school. Officials have explained that it’s costly to create a “world-class performing arts space” while respecting the historic nature of the 19th-century building.

DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has criticized the way school renovations are scheduled, saying it has more to do with “how loudly your community screams” than with objective criteria. Now Councilmember David Grosso, who is reviewing Bowser’s proposed budget as chair of the Education Committee, is trying to bring some rationality to the process.

“I can’t in good conscience urge my colleagues to pass this capital budget as is,” Grosso said at a committee hearing two weeks ago.

The Washington Post has put the number of renovation projects that are delayed at “more than a dozen” or “nearly twenty.” But education activist Matthew Frumin says that the total number of projects that are either delayed or eliminated is 45.

Proposed criteria for renovations

Grosso would prioritize schools that haven’t recently been modernized and are in bad condition. He would also look at the size of a school’s current and potential enrollment.

Grosso has posted a survey online, asking the public to weigh in on his proposed priorities and also suggest others. The deadline for responding is Friday.

Grosso would also ask how well a school’s facilities “support teaching and learning.” That criterion apparently refers to architectural features like the open-classroom layout at Orr Elementary School in Ward 8.

Decades ago, DCPS tore down the walls at some elementary schools, in accordance with a then-fashionable theory that it would improve learning. Not only has that theory come into question, some also argue that schools without interior walls are unsafe because teachers and students have nowhere to hide in the event of an intrusion.

Orr may be the most egregious example of a school that has long been in need of modernization. In addition to the lack of walls, families and students say the building is infested with mice, the playground is dangerous, and parts of the ceiling are falling down.

A year ago, then-Councilmember Bowser signed a pledge promising “to fight for Orr’s modernization to begin immediately” and “to hold accountable those who further delay modernizing the school.”

Dismay in Ward 6 and elsewhere

Bowser’s proposed delays in funding have upset other school communities as well. The budget would push back renovations of two Ward 6 middle schools, Jefferson and Eliot-Hine, from 2016 to 2019. Many parents in Ward 6 abandon neighborhood schools after elementary school, and activists have seen improving local middle schools as crucial to keeping those students in the feeder pattern.

The delay “undermines years of work,” according to Joe Weedon, the Ward 6 representative to DC’s State Board of Education. Weedon tweeted a photo of a girl’s bathroom at Eliot-Hine that showed general disrepair and stalls without doors.

The Ward 3 SBOE member, Ruth Wattenberg, tweeted a photo that showed a bathroom at Murch Elementary School in Ward 3 doubling as the nurse’s office.

The budget would also delay funds to renovate Murch, which has long been overcrowded.

Cost overruns and high school spending

According to Frumin, the increases in funding for current renovation projects show that DC either underestimated construction costs or that those costs are rising—or both. But, he says, the Bowser administration hasn’t increased cost estimates for renovations it’s planning to delay.

If history is any guide, future costs will climb as well. And Frumin says the District may not be able to borrow enough money to pay those additional costs. Current law limits the amount DC can use to repay loans and interest to 12% of total expenditures, he says. Even the funding levels in the proposed budget would bring payments close to that limit, with 11.8% going to service debt beginning in fiscal year 2019.

Even if Grosso is able to reinstate some delayed renovations, Frumin says, the cap on debt payments means DC won’t be able to fund future renovations unless it changes the law or finds money elsewhere in the budget so that it doesn’t have to borrow money to finance them.

One problem is that over the past several years DC has spent huge amounts of money renovating high schools, many of which are under-enrolled.

Ellington isn’t under-enrolled, and it’s undoubtedly a valuable institution that has incubated significant artists. Still, it’s hard to justify spending vast amounts of money renovating the school at a time when needs are dire elsewhere.

Nor does it make sense for Ellington to remain in the building that currently houses it. That building, just north of Georgetown, used to be a neighborhood high school called Western.

If it became a neighborhood school again, it could draw off some of the students currently assigned to Wilson High School and relieve the serious overcrowding there, while still allowing space for out-of-boundary students at both schools. And presumably it would cost less to equip an old, historic building to function as an ordinary high school than to turn it into a world-class performing arts space.

Ellington, meanwhile, could move to a more central and accessible location. That would make sense for a school that draws its student body from across the District. Observers have made these suggestions before, and it’s not clear why authorities haven’t taken them seriously.

Grosso’s proposed criteria for deciding which schools to modernize make sense, but they may not be enough to make people think twice about the Ellington renovation. If he truly wants to bring rationality to the decision-making process, he’ll figure out a way to avoid such a huge waste of needed funds before it’s too late.

Correction: The original version of this post said the proposed budget delays funds for Murch Elementary School. In fact, renovation funds for Murch have been delayed for years, but the proposed budget fully funds a renovation at Murch that is slated to begin next year.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.