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Three weeks after he announced his resignation, former District of Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Gen. Julius Becton mapped one of his last strategic battle plans for the beleaguered school system: On April 17, he signed a memorandum of agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide engineering, technical, and procurement assistance in assessing and renovating D.C.’s deteriorating school buildings.

“The thinking was, ‘If they can build a bridge in a rainstorm or over a swollen river, then they can fix a school roof,’” notes Sarah Woodhead, an architect and senior associate with the 21st Century School Fund, a private organization devoted to rebuilding the D.C. public schools. The agreement brought even more federal intervention into a broken school system already saddled with a federally appointed superintendent and board of trustees.

And it has also brought disappointment: By the end of fiscal year 1998, the corps had failed to complete many of the projects it had promised to oversee, including school boiler and window replacements. And what it did manage to finish came with a larger price tag than originally envisioned.

No item in the city’s portfolio reflects its historic neglect of infrastructure quite like the school system. Although schools do indeed suffer from poorly motivated teachers and obstructionist bureaucrats, kids don’t learn too well in a hovel.

That’s why Becton was hand-picked by the D.C. financial control board in late 1996 to head up the school system. The retired general promised to put all his experience as a military officer and as former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency—the nation’s disaster-relief agency—to work for D.C. schools. The crusade, as we know now, ended in personal defeat—the most crushing coming when schools opened three weeks late for the ’97-’98 school year due to delays in roof repairs and fire code violations. To prevent history from repeating itself the next school year, Becton tapped his old buddies at the Corps of Engineers.

The $2.5 million memorandum of agreement for fiscal year 1998 raised some eyebrows among various city officials. According to the Washington Post, the city’s chief procurement officer, Richard Fite, called the agreement ambiguous on performance and accountability. Others in the school system’s contracting office whispered that the no-bid agreement seemed like a sweetheart deal, given Becton’s military past. The city’s elected school board—powerless under federal oversight—voted to oppose the plan. Perhaps the skeptics were worried that the corps might take a cue from one of its prominent alumni—Gen. Charles E. Williams, who had resigned as head of facilities management only two months prior amid a citywide consensus that he had bungled his responsibilities.

In reality, though, they were all onto something.

In its initial agreement with the corps, the school system set elastic ground rules regarding the corps’ assistance on capital projects. Each month or so since, the school system has signed supplemental “support agreements” detailing the services the corps is to provide for the short term, as well as the money allotted for those tasks.

Through the middle of November, the two parties signed seven support agreements for a little more than $4 million. And despite the initial commitment of $2.5 million for fiscal year 1998, school brass shelled out over $3 million from April 27 through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. The two most recent of these agreements, both in fiscal year 1999, have totaled $140,000 and $925,000, respectively.

Each payment ducks the $1 million single-contract threshold, say observers, to avoid the scrutiny of the D.C. Council. (By law, the council must approve all city contracts exceeding $1 million.) Indeed, the agreements have not appeared on the radar screen of D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous, who heads the committee on education and libraries, says Chavous spokeswoman Denise Reed. And since the initial agreement was signed between two government agencies, the multi-million-dollar deal was not opened to competitive bidding.

So what has the city purchased with its cash? Not everything it ordered.

One of the biggest tasks the Corps of Engineers agreed to help with was procurement. D.C. school bureaucrats had neither the expertise nor the resources to oversee contracts for all the projects necessary to modernize their buildings.

As much as the corps may have wanted to help out with procurement, its hands were tied. When they started their work, corps officials lacked the authority to hand out money directly to vendors—that was still the city chief procurement officer’s job. The resolution didn’t come until this fall, when the D.C. financial control board finally allowed the corps to play sugar daddy. That explains the spike in support agreement allotments: the last two have been for $2 million and $8 million respectively.

The procurement requirements for fiscal year 1998 included 34 roof replacements, 19 boiler replacements, and 16 window replacements, in addition to other miscellaneous jobs, such as replacing the pool wall at Woodrow Wilson Senior High and replacing the gym at Garnet Patterson Middle School.

The corps helped the school system complete all the roof replacements on the list. But now, as temperatures begin to dip below freezing, at least 16 of 19 schools that were slated to have their boilers repaired rely on little fortresses outside their buildings that house temporary units. In addition, only a few of the schools signed up for window replacements now have new glass.

In the bad old days of the school system, that track record would have warranted promotions and an awards banquet for the whole school system. “The good thing is that work is being done,” says Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who has been keeping her eye on the corps’ work. “The bad thing is that we’re paying a huge premium for the Army’s work.” Patterson questions the legality of the agreements, arguing that they may violate a federal law prohibiting the District from entering into conracts with unpredictable costs.

Corps of Engineers representatives say that slowdowns occurred because they inherited too great a role in capital projects. “We’ve gotten much more involved in capital improvement than we envisioned,” answers David Morrow, program manager for the corps’ Baltimore division. That involvement explains the higher cost as well, Morrow notes.

Morrow’s diplomatic words gloss over the real reason for the problems: the school system’s backward approach to facilities management. Ten months after Gen. Williams’ departure, the school system has yet to appoint a new facilities director. And the instability seems contagious: In the last nine months, there have been four directors of the Office of Acquisitions and Contract Management, the office designated to work with the corps on procurement.

Even with the corps’ help, the school system got a late start on many projects and had to delay much of the permanent work until fiscal year 1999. Still, Morrow notes that the most important job was completed—school doors opened on schedule in September. “I’m not sure it was not mission impossible,” says Morrow about the incomplete projects. “I’m not sure anyone could have done it.”

Woodhead and others point to the lack of a master plan for the school system that would guide future infrastructure projects. The last time the system created a long-term facilities blueprint was in 1967. The vision deficit means that the system often wastes precious money and resources—for example, replacing windows before other significant capital projects on a building are completed.

And the school system’s own facilities division has a steep learning curve to climb before it can assume the responsibilities alone. Take the repairs to the Wilson pool, for example: It took the Maintenance and Operations Division six months to complete work originally diagnosed as a simple valve problem. The Wilson swim team ended up having to rent a pool at a neighboring private school for the fall.

“[Current D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Arlene] Ackerman doesn’t want to grapple with facilities,” argues a D.C. schools watcher. “She thinks [the problems] might just go away.”

Even corps detractors say the problem is not entirely the Army unit’s fault. Though the skilled officers can help an army cross a river in a matter of hours, the Corps of Engineers had absolutely no experience in educational infrastructure before beginning this project.

“Our staff had to hold these guys’ hands,” complains one school architect about the corps’ roof work. “They’re sending us greenhorns. Send us some people who know what they’re doing.”

That attitude, say schools critics, underlies years of failure in every aspect of secondary education in the city. Instead of recruiting its own talent and developing ties to reliable contractors, the system keeps pointing the finger at outsiders.

“There is this notion of finding a messiah to come save us from ourselves,” says Woodhead. “Everyone seems to want to find an outside force to help the school system do their job….The school system needs to have its own capability.” CP