At-Large Councilmember David Grosso
At-Large Councilmember David Grosso Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The D.C. Council killed an amendment offered by At-Large Councilmember David Grosso yesterday following a debate about school renovations and broken promises.

In the days leading up to the Council’s vote on the fiscal year 2020 budget, Mayor Muriel Bowser framed the debate over funding for renovations to Benjamin Banneker Academic High School as proxy for gentrification, frustrating the Council. From the dais, several councilmembers lamented the narrative that they say has pitted two school communities against each other.

“After weeks of protests in Shaw against gentrification and displacement, I am shocked that seven councilmembers have signed onto a letter telling students, families, and staff at Benjamin Banneker High School … that they need to stay put at their current location,” Bowser wrote in a letter last week.

Grosso’s amendment would have reversed Chairman Phil Mendelson‘seffort to strip $53 million from the $140 million that Bowser wants to use to relocate Benjamin Banneker Academic High School to the site of the old Shaw Junior High, which closed about a decade ago and currently sits vacant.

The amendment failed by a 7-6 vote and divided the Council almost entirely along racial lines.

Councilmembers Robert WhiteTrayon WhiteBrandon ToddAnita Bonds, and Kenyan McDuffie supported Grosso’s amendment.

Chairman Phil Mendelson, along with Councilmembers Elissa SilvermanBrianne NadeauCharles AllenMary ChehJack Evans, and Vince Gray voted against it.

Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn sent a letter to councilmembers today saying that the current funding scheme—cutting $53 million from Banneker’s renovation budget—would torpedo the entire project.

“Not only is $88 million nowhere near the amount of funding that is required to modernize Banneker, this reduction in funding will significantly delay the modernization of the District’s highest performing high school yet again,” Kihn writes. “The Council is in effect ending the modernization project and must now create a new project from scratch.”

The Council will vote on the budget for the second and final time in two weeks.

Bowser’s proposal to relocate Banneker students to the Shaw site has angered some parents and advocates, who were promised a new middle school in that location. They argue that a standalone middle school, rebuilt at the Shaw site, will serve a diverse student population.

On the other hand, renovations to Banneker, a school ranked among the best in the country and whose students are a majority black and Latino, have been kicked down the road for years.

Natalie Hopkinson, whose daughter is a freshman at Banneker, defends Bowser’s framing. “If you’re talking about Shaw in Washington D.C., what else are you talking about beside gentrification?” Hopkinson says. “This is a thing that’s happening and it’s playing a role in this debate as well. You have a school that’s imaginary that is getting more funds than an institution that actually has kids in [it].”

In introducing his amendment, Grosso spoke forcefully, directing his comments at Mendelson, who earlier this year removed Grosso as the sole chairperson over the Committee on Education and installed himself as co-chair.

“This is something you and I have not seen eye to eye on,” Grosso said. “I know you’ve worked hard on this and I just don’t agree with where you’ve ended up.”

Grosso added that he disagrees “with how the mayor has engaged on this decision” to move Banneker to the Shaw site.

Mendelson argued that the amendment would have unintended consequences for other facilities, such as a renovation to the University of the District of Columbia. “This is damaging beyond the issue of Banneker,” he said.

Those who supported Grosso’s amendment emphasized the academic success of Banneker’s students despite the school’s shoddy conditions.

Trayon White likened the facility to a “third world school,” with rodents, leaks, and bars on the windows.

McDuffie, who acknowledged ahead of the meeting that he’d flipped from his original position that the city should renovate Banneker’s current building rather than the Shaw site, said he’d been persuaded by students and parents, including his wife and sister, who are Banneker alumnae.

“The community has waited far too long for modernization and should not have to wait any longer,” McDuffie says in a follow up interview.

He describes the frame around gentrificationby the mayor, some on social media, and those who’ve contacted his officeas a red herring.

“I’m troubled by the way this policy question has evolved into a debate where two communities of Shaw and Banneker have been pitted against one another,” he says. “I’m not blaming the mayor or chairman or any specific elected official, but I think it speaks to the larger issue in some way that the city is extremely divided and unfortunately along racial lines.”

As for the divide among councilmembers, McDuffie doesn’t read anything into it.

“I think this Council is more sensitive to issues of race and economics, and I don’t know that there’s anything to the way the vote ended up,” he says.

Those who supported Mendelson, and voted against Grosso’s measure, were optimistic that the Council could find a solution that appeases both the Banneker and Shaw communities, though none offered any specific suggestions.

Gray, who began his remarks with a plug for his work to build a new hospital, saddled Mendelson with the responsibility of finding a solution before the Council votes on final approval for the budget in two weeks.

“I have worked closely with the Shaw situation … and I made a promise to the people who have been working with Shaw when I was mayor,” Gray said. “It pains me to have two outstanding communities … competing in this fashion.”

Nadeau, who represents Ward 1 where Banneker is located, seemed poised to stick to the idea of renovating the facility on its current footprint.

“I’m concerned the students at Banneker have been told this is the only option for them,” Nadeau said as Banneker students watched from the audience. “I blame the adults for that. There has always been an option for a beautiful Banneker on site.”

Mendelson, for his part, pledged to restore the money to renovate Banneker, but the question of where that renovation will take place is still unanswered. 

McDuffie suggested one possible solution could be to expand the school into the adjacent Department of Parks and Recreation land. The nearby Banneker Recreation Center includes a pool, tennis courts, a baseball diamond, and basketball courts.

“I imagine there will be some residents and others in the community who don’t want to hear what I have to say with respect to existing DPR resources, but I think the priority is to give the Banneker students everything they need,” he tells LL. “If the school’s not going to move to Shaw, then I think everything should be on the table.”