In 2008, D.C. released a new Master Facilities Plan for DCPS to prioritize renovations of schools, with an emphasis on improvements to the academic learning environments—i.e. classrooms. This was to allow for enhancements to all schools within 5 years, rather than pursuing more capital-intensive full modernizations, which would have required more than a decade to complete. However, over time, priorities shifted. Last year, the Committee on Education was surprised to learn that even after spending over a billion dollars since 2008, 24 schools still had not received any form of renovation.

Over the years, projects got more and more expensive; many saw unplanned expansion in their scopes of work beyond upgrades to the academic learning environment. At the same time, the ordering of school projects became increasingly political. School communities that were able to mobilize and lobby the government often went first. Communities that lacked political capital had their projects delayed.

When I became chairperson of the Council’s Committee on Education, I committed to grappling with the question of how I can level the playing field after years of unfair policies and unequal investments. After visiting over 100 schools in D.C., I knew the capital modernization process was primed for an overhaul. Some parts of the city had schools with glass enclosed atriums with stunning water features, while other areas had schools with bars on the doors of classrooms or that lacked windows and classroom walls.    

DCPS also agreed it was time for an overhaul. For the FY16 budget process, the Education Committee worked with DCPS, the Deputy Mayor for Education, and the Department of General Services to develop an objective tool for ranking the order of schools in the capital improvement plan (CIP) to ensure that the CIP reflects equity focused planning, aligns investments with student demand, upholds the values of the community-centered school, and builds facilities to support quality educational programs. As a result, the Committee approved the FY16 budget which accelerated the modernizations of a number of schools like Houston, Orr, and Kimball. These school buildings are in desperate need of modernization, but they had been overlooked since 2008.

When the Mayor released her proposed FY17 budget this March, I was pleased that she proposed additional funds to “right-size” project allocations. Although it was disappointing that this resulted in 5 schools not being included in the CIP, most of the projects that had been endorsed by the Committee for FY17-FY18 were still in place. This meant we had managed to create some predictably in the CIP. DCPS noted that the projects in the CIP were ordered using a prioritization model that was, in part, informed by the Committee’s work in 2015. However, the two models are quite different, as described in detail in the Committee’s FY17 budget report. In the DCPS model, more attention was focused on the population of students currently in the school, and less on the facility condition itself. Further, DCPS only ranked the 18 schools in the current DCPS portfolio that have not received a significant capital investment. During the budget hearing, DCPS stated that their model would likely not work well for future CIPs, and that they would need to create something new next year. The Committee could not in good conscience wait for next year.

I decided to go back to the model from last year and update it to rank all 112 schools in the DCPS portfolio using over 4,600 data points. Given funding limitations, swing space, and planning that is already underway, the Committee decided not to make widespread adjustments to the proposed FY17-FY22 CIP. However, from an equity stand point, I could not recommend that my colleagues approve a Phase 2 or 3 modernization for a school, when there are still so many that have not received any capital investments. Unfortunately, there was one school in that predicament—Shepherd Elementary, which has already had $31 million invested in the school since 2013.

At Shepherd, the Phase 1 modernization scope of work, which is complete, included the renovation of all of the classrooms in the three buildings, with new lights, ceilings, HVAC system, furniture, fixtures, and equipment. The Phase 2 scope of work, which will be completed in July 2016, consists of right-sizing art, music, and special education classrooms, in addition to a new entrance and Welcome Center. Based on documents provided to the community and SIT Team, as of November 2015 there was no immediate plan for a third phase of modernization, for the cafeteria and gymnasium. Funding was not included in the FY16-FY21 budget for Phase 3 and the school was not among the 18 that DCPS ranked in its prioritization model. In the Committee’s ranking tool, Shepherd is number 84 out of 112. That makes sense given all the beautiful work that has happened on that campus over the years. Thus, the Committee recommended re-prioritizing the additional funding from Shepherd’s Phase 3 modernization to cover some necessary small capital projects of schools not included in the CIP or not slated for modernization for several years.

I was not on the Council in 2008 when the phased approach to modernizations was introduced, but I have visited most of the 35 schools who, like Shepherd, were impacted by that decision and are also waiting on new cafeterias and gymnasiums. When I first joined the Council, I was shocked to learn that ADA compliance was not part of these phased modernizations. I have insisted that we have an independent investment in ADA compliance, creating a separate budget line for these needs. Going forward all modernizations will include remediation of ADA issues, and other ADA needs can be addressed along the way.

I understand and appreciate the desire of school communities to have full modernizations. However, there was a reason this government started this work with a commitment to enhance the academic learning environments first. It is hard to focus on the math lesson when the air quality in your building is lacking because there is no HVAC system at your school. Academic outcomes are impacted when your middle school does not have a functioning science lab for students to conduct hands-on experiments. And it is crushing to a student’s morale when they cannot even see out the windows of their classroom. We have to level the playing field.

I am committed to finishing the job for all of our school modernizations and going back to the 35 schools that had varying quality of Phase 1 or 2 modernizations. It’s going to take time and additional investments, but in the process, our government must answer to the 18 schools we’ve ignored. Admittedly, committing to an objective approach to capital modernizations is difficult. As opposed to politics driving the decision-making, facility condition and need should. As I wrote in The Washington Post at the beginning of this school year, “Fixing systemic inequities requires intentionality and taking some risks.” I am doubling down on this effort and my commitment. I hope the community supports us in this work.