The District asked Congress for $78 million to protect kids from terrorism. But DCPS officials can’t figure out what they’re buying.

Two months ago, Mayor Anthony A. Williams requested $250 million from Congress to protect the District from future terrorist attacks. That request has been downsized by Congress and rolled into a $20 billion national request now before a House/Senate conference committee. Democrats originally hoped to spend $35 billion on anti-terrorism measures, but President George W. Bush threatened to veto that package over concerns that the extra $15 billion worth of its proposals were poorly thought-out or larded with pork-barrel spending, and the Senate nixed the Democrats’ larger request last week.

Such concerns appear to have been well-founded, at least in one portion of the District’s request. The Williams administration requested $78 million in federal funds for District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) security measures—just under a third of the city’s total request. According to two high-ranking DCPS officials, however, the solicitation was flawed in a number of ways, including an overstatement of the number of D.C. schools, a proposal to purchase systems already installed in the schools earlier this year, and a plan to place X-ray machines and metal detectors in the elementary schools, in violation of DCPS’s own master facilities plan.

“There are inaccuracies in both the content and concept here,” says Steven G. Seleznow, chief of staff for DCPS, of the multi-million-dollar request. Prompted by a call from the Washington City Paper, Seleznow reviewed DCPS security needs, policies, and plans, and concluded last Saturday that, in fact, a sum of $15,280,000 “would equip all of our security needs.”

Seventy-eight million dollars, says Seleznow, was “considerably more than our maximum buildout in terms what our optimal security plan might be.” Seleznow could not say why an additional $63 million beyond the optimal amount had been requested by the Williams administration.

The request submitted to Congress, prepared by an interagency task force overseen by Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Margret Nedelkoff Kellems and titled “District of Columbia Request for Domestic Preparedness Funds” requested the following items:

DCPS School Security Equipment—Upgrade for Upgraded Facilities (350) Xray machines (medium use), (350) Walk through Metal Detectors—assumes 2 of each for 175 schools. $12,775,000.

DCPS Facility Upgrade—ADT systems digital closed circuit surveillance systems, electronic proximity card access, intrusions detection systems for windows and doors, duress systems, external security—assume half of the 175 schools are large and half are medium sized facilities: $65,625,000.

Total costs: $78,400,000.

According to DCPS Executive Director for Security Patrick Fiel, however, the system needs only $545,000 to complete DCPS security improvements with X-ray and metal-detecting machines, not the $12.8 million dollars requested by the Williams administration. Fiel observes that DCPS has already placed closed-circuit-surveillance systems in nearly half the schools, including all the secondary schools. Plans are under way to put the cameras in every school within the next three years. Twenty secondary schools already have X-ray machines, and Fiel hopes to purchase only 22 more X-ray machines and 20 additional walk-through metal detectors—and not the 350 of each requested by the administration.

Other city agencies charged with ensuring the safety and security of the District’s residents put together more modest wish lists. The Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department requested only $14,517,090. The Metropolitan Police Department put in for $12,473,857. Both are so-called first responders—agencies likely to arrive at a disaster scene during the most dangerous moments. They requested cash for expenditures such as Level A chemical-protection suits, decontamination tents, and a weapons-of-mass-destruction library.

The city’s Department of Health asked for $23,441,325, and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner requested $1,980,000. Both are also first-responder agencies tasked with handling future bioterrorism incidents, just as they coordinated the city’s response to October’s anthrax attack.

The Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates the city’s disaster-relief responses across its agencies, asked for only $5,400,000.

Exactly why DCPS put in for five times more money than the police or fire department, and three times more than the Department of Health, is a mystery even to its own officials.

“It seemed out of proportion to me, as well,” says Seleznow when asked about the disparity in funding requests. “I don’t know at this point how the calculations were made. One of the issues that I’ve noticed in this request: It assumes two [X-ray machines and walk-through metal detectors] each for 175 schools, but we don’t have 175 schools. We have 146 schools. We have other centers and locations—we have bus depots, and warehouses, and locations. It seems to me whoever pulled this request together used some language that wasn’t as precise as it could have been.

“Also, we don’t use metal detectors and X-ray machines for elementary schools,” Seleznow continues. “If we had an emergency, then we would bring [hand-held] metal detectors to elementary schools. The closed-circuit system, the ADT system, that is a system that, from our work with the Metropolitan Police Department and other law-enforcement agencies, we have been working on in the wake of Columbine…. We do have a plan to put surveillance cameras in the secondary schools, and all of our high schools are about completed. We have already put [closed-circuit surveillance cameras] in most of our high schools.”

The additional funds might be used to upgrade existing metal detectors or surveillance systems, or to add additional capacities such as “electronic proximity card access” and new intrusion-detection systems for all the schools, says Seleznow.

The bulk of the requested funds were for systems that either already exist or will not be implemented under current DCPS policy. Asked what the funds might be used for if the high schools already have surveillance cameras, X-ray machines, and metal detectors—and the elementary schools will not be getting the X-ray machines or metal detectors—Seleznow replies: “That is a very legitimate question.”

“I don’t know how this particular material got into the request and who vetted it,” Seleznow adds. “I did not vet it, and I certainly would not let this go out had I seen it.”

One possible reason for the large DCPS funding request, observes a staffer on the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee, is that “there was a funding shortfall from last year” in the District’s school system.

The DCPS overran its budget by $98 million last year, notes this staffer, adding that the House committee discussed the possibility that the DCPS request might be trying to make up that shortfall.

Kellems dismisses this explanation as nonsense. “I can guarantee you one hundred percent that is not true,” she says. “This [budget] was put together with a lot of budget scrutiny, and the chief financial officer’s office rubbed out anything that looked like an agency trying to pad its budget.”

Besides, Kellems says, the DCPS “budget shortfall is in operating funds. These are capital improvements. Capital budgets and operating budgets are separate. They couldn’t spend freed-up capital funds to offset operating funds.”

Seleznow also points out that the committee that created the preparedness request was an interagency task force not beholden to either the school superintendent, Paul Vance, or the Board of Education, making it extremely unlikely that any misstatements were related to DCPS budget processes.

DCPS officials, in fact, say that they were not closely involved in the process of putting together the request. Tony Bullock, spokesman for Mayor Williams, says that oversight responsibility for the request lay with Kellems. And Kellems, through Bullock, says that the D.C. Office of Property Management put the DCPS request together for her and is responsible for the numbers.

Eric Balliet, a spokesperson for the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, says that his office, though it worked with Kellems on the proposal to Congress, “has no jurisdiction over the Office of Property Management, so I don’t know where those numbers came from.”

“The Office of Property Management is one of the mayor’s agencies,” says Balliet. “The request in total was made by the mayor’s office.”

Some local school watchdogs say it appears that the District government was simply trying to use the anti-terrorism bill to pay for ongoing programs and pre-existing projects.

“From a D.C. budget perspective, it sounds to me like they are going after normal security, not terrorists,” says Mary Levy, director of the Public Education Reform Project at the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, a schools advocacy group. “[DCPS is] going to ask for money wherever they think they might get it….After all, terrorists don’t normally lurk about the corridors, but troublemakers do.”

Levy’s colleague Iris Toyer, president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Stanton Elementary School in Southeast and the Public Education Legal Services Project director at the Washington Lawyers Committee, concurs.

“The closed-circuit TVs have already started; one of the security people did a demonstration at a meeting for us,” says Toyer, referring to an Oct. 11 meeting between local parent leaders and Vance. “I wasn’t aware that it was for terrorism. As explained to us—to the PTA presidents that were gathered—it was really a security measure to monitor what was going on in the schools to keep children safe….I didn’t hear the word ‘terrorism’ in the entire presentation. It was what they are currently doing to make our schools safe.”

The closed-circuit digital TVs that DCPS suggested to Congress that it would install in all schools—including elementary schools—allow for live and recorded digital images to be “captured” on an ongoing basis. They also provide a means to monitor such images from remote locations. As for the proposed metal detectors, it was long since decided they are inappropriate for use in primary schools.

“They have a negative impact on our younger kids,” says Seleznow.

Nonetheless, the D.C. domestic-preparedness initiative sent to Congress proposed expanding the X-ray and metal-detecting programs to all the schools—including elementary schools, charter schools where DCPS owns the buildings, and school-owned facilities—along with intruder-detection systems and electronic proximity card access.

Outside of the District, one place that has used the cameras is the John Ryan Middle School in Tewksbury, Mass. The cameras were installed there as part of a pilot program testing different crime-prevention strategies in different schools, at the behest of the Northeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, a group representing police chiefs from 28 northern Massachusetts jurisdictions.

“They’ve been very pleased with the results of it,” says Ann Lindstrom, a spokesperson for Advanced Digital Technology Security Systems Inc., which makes the cameras. “It provides round-the-clock, real-time monitoring and [image] storage throughout the school. It has the ability to transmit images live, and recorded to an off-site location. They had had a pretty wild environment there, and that’s why they were wanting to do something fairly proactive.”

But the fact that the systems have a track record of being used to target and catch unruly students, rather than terrorists, disturbs some civil libertarians. Told of the proposal to Congress, Johnny Barnes, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, National Capitol Area, called the measures troublesome, though far from illegal. “This sounds like we’re creating a prisonlike environment, rather than an environment that promotes education above all else,” says Barnes. “The data shows that our schools are safer today than they were 20 years ago. We must not overreact to situations like Columbine and Paducah.”

Seleznow defends the cameras’ use. “We have a measurable impact from putting these systems in our high schools” he says. Fiel notes that, over the past five years, DCPS has recovered more than 2,000 weapons from students, thanks to the X-ray scanners and walk-through metal detectors in the secondary schools. During the last year, the surveillance cameras caught about 50 incidents on tape that were forwarded on to the police for investigation, from vandalism and burglaries to false bomb threats and break-ins, he says.

The administration insists that the proposed measures will be used to fight terrorism and protect students, not catch worried teens from crime-ridden neighborhoods who carry box cutters to defend themselves on their way to school. “The issue here is not that we don’t trust our students,” says Bullock. “It’s: What will someone else try to bring into the building?”

And protecting students means getting as much money from Congress as possible. “We really do feel that if we don’t have this full request we are not going to be at the level of readiness that we are going to need to be at,” Bullock said last week, when queried about the $250 million request. “Nine-eleven proved one thing: that we don’t know what the future holds.”

But another D.C. government official closely involved with the request argues that submitting a high figure to Congress was very likely an intentional political ploy. “Everything under the sun was thrown in there, because people thought that if you request low, you’re never going to get it,” says the source. “But if you request high—even after winnowing down—you’re going to be OK.”

The Senate version of the domestic preparedness request now being considered by the House/Senate committee would provide $14,575,000 to the D.C. public schools. And that’s only a million short of what Seleznow says they need. CP