Credit: Darrow Montgomery

In March, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that an additional $220 million in her fiscal year 2017 budget would go towards modernizing D.C.’s public schools. The city, she said during her State of the District address, would give schools that hadn’t been updated in a long time “full renovation[s],” starting next year.

“That means there will be some schools that get done sooner and more completely, and others will take a little longer,” Bowser said. “But most importantly, all of the schools that remain will be done, and all of them will be done right.” By fiscal year 2022, officials hope, about 100 schools will have been fixed.

But which D.C. Public Schools facilities will get renovated first? That question was the subject of a lively discussion by the D.C. Council on Wednesday, when its 13 members hashed out intended changes to the executive’s submitted budget for fiscal year 2017.

School modernization has proven to be an arduous process for city leaders since at least 2006, when legislation outlined the District’s most recent approach. A report by the D.C. Auditor last year found missing evidence of hundreds of millions of dollars of related expenditures as well as a lack of oversight by the Department of General Services, which manages District government buildings. Officials say they hope to make the process more cost-effective and transparent.

At-Large Councilmember David Grosso told his colleagues that his Committee on Education had “updated” a model for determining the modernization schedule for DCPS schools from one last year, based on the following factors: the date and type of a site’s “last major construction,” investments per square foot over the past two decades, facility conditions, the growth in a school’s enrollment and use, as well as “community” factors like child-population growth and the number of at-risk students. (More details on that methodology are in the committee’s budget report.)

“What we’ve done is ranked all of our school buildings so that the public has a better understanding of where they are on the list, when they’re going to come up for renovation or modernization, and we proceeded from that perspective,” Grosso said on Wednesday. “There are 4,600 data points that go into this. This is not just willy-nilly. This is something we can back up with all the research that we’ve done.”

“But this is also not entirely perfect,” Grosso continued, adding that he would introduce the ranking model as legislation this year so the public and officials could weigh in on it through the Council’s typical process.

Under the model the Committee on Education unanimously approved, 18 schools that haven’t yet gotten significant capital improvements will be modernized top-to-bottom first, followed by 35 where “phase I” projects have started but not been finished. The committee produced a chart showing the order.

In the chart, green represents schools that are included in a six-year capital improvement plan spanning fiscal years 2017 to 2022; orange, those where modernization is in progress; and red, those in the plan but not fully funded. Per the committee report, Bowser’s proposed capital budget for DCPS includes roughly $430 million for fiscal year 2017 as well as a total $1.3 billion over the six-year budgeting period.

Orr Elementary School in Ward 8 is slated first for full modernization. The order, however, was not determined based on ward, the committee report notes, because in past years this was seen as “political.” After schools become modernized, they’ll drop down to the bottom of the list as others keep moving up.

“We’re not in the days where we were spending $500 to $600 million a year,” Grosso told his colleagues. “That said, the mayor found $220 extra for this year…The confidence we can have [is that] when there is more money, a school like Browne [Education Campus, in Ward 5] that is in the 20s can start to bump up for full modernization…That’s why I want to codify this [model]” as law, in order to guide future projects.

Given that the budget was unanimously approved by the committee, this method for capital funding will likely be supported by the Council’s Committee of the Whole, a Wilson Building staffer says.

Still, during Wednesday’s meeting, a few councilmembers expressed concerns about where particular schools in their wards fell on the list. Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, for example, strenuously objected to Shepherd Elementary School being ranked 84th for modernization. The education committee has reduced the proposed capital funding for Shepherd by nearly $12.4 million, redistributing it to seven other schools for renovation or modernization projects. “From all objective analysis, [the funding in the six-year plan for Shepherd] did not make any sense to us,” Grosso said.

Todd argued that the school has a host of issues, including pests, insufficient ADA-compliance, and food preparation and storage problems.

“While I truly feel that many of the investments that you’re looking to make across the city are certainly worthwhile, I am quite disappointed—as are the parents at Shepherd Elementary and in the Shepherd Park community—that we are looking to completely remove funding for the final phase of modernization at that school,” Todd said from a prepared statement. “In my view and in the view of my constituents, to completely defund finalizing their greatly needed modernization, I think, is quite unconscionable.”

Similarly, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie pointed out that Browne Education Campus is not included in the plan and ranked 24th on the list. Calling the conditions at the school “a disgrace,” the councilmember noted that it serves many students from high-crime areas and ought to be a “safe haven.”

“I would ask us to reconsider whether it should be a priority, not just for Ward 5 but the whole city, to fund a school like Browne Education Campus,” McDuffie said. “They’re doing crime walks almost every week in this neighborhood. You have kids who are seeing yellow tape almost every day in this neighborhood. We’ve got to do right by [them].” (Grosso said BEC would benefit from more capital improvement plan money.)

Meanwhile, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds noticed that Drew Elementary School in Ward 7, which has a very high population of students considered at-risk, was 34th in the ranking. “I just wonder when will they have an opportunity for some modernization?” she commented. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said that if modernizations are done “economically,” more schools could be renovated.

LaToya Foster, a spokesperson for Bowser, said the administration is on the same page as the committee with respect to prioritizing full renovations. “We heard loud and clear that families were tired of the half modernizations that had previously dictated the order of modernizing our schools,” she said in a statement. “We are now taking a pragmatic approach that uses consistent criteria and modernizes our schools on a practical timeline, within budget. Most importantly, we’re putting families first.”

In a statement, DCPS said it looks “forward to working with Chairman Grosso and the D.C. Council to update the school modernizations plan to allow for us to create the highest-quality buildings that serves the needs of our families in an equitable manner. We look forward to all our schools being world-class buildings to match the world-class teaching that already happens at our schools.”

DCPS operates 113 schools.