We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
When Maj. Gen. Charles Williams briefed the D.C. control board in early June, he told his overseers everything they needed to hear. As head of facilities for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), Williams promised a plan to repair dozens of crumbling schools in time for the scheduled Sept. 2 start of classes. Like a good soldier, he presented his goals and dates for the project: On June 13, DCPS would begin soliciting bids for more than 40 roof renovations, all contract awards would be made by early July, and work would be “substantially complete” by Sept. 1, according to Williams’ briefing report.
The success of Williams’ school-repair plan was a high-stakes affair for the control board. When the board ousted ineffective DCPS Superintendent Franklin Smith and the elected school board last November, it promised that the new teamCEO Gen. Julius Becton, Williams, and an emergency board of trusteeswould turn things around quickly. And what better place to show improvement than in school repairsa test the previous regime had failed twice in three years, resulting in well-publicized school-opening delays?
As disgruntled parents discovered earlier this month, though, the new regime is every bit as efficient as the old at bungling crucial roof work. Becton and Williams announced that despite their best-laid plans, the schools would not be ready for students until Sept. 22. They excused themselves by saying that they were replacing school roofsnot just patching them, as the previous regime had done over and over. “This has never been done before in the city,” says Harold Johnson, Williams’ deputy. “This is a herculean effort.”
Hercules probably wouldn’t want his name anywhere near this fiasco. Like their bumbling predecessors, Williams and his troops acted as though the schools’ Sept. 2 start date didn’t exist. Williams has been on board since December 1996, but he didn’t end up awarding contracts for the summer roof work until mid-July. Work on most roofs didn’t even start until earlier this month. “We told them to [start] roofs on the day after school was out. It sounded stupid saying it,” says Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United, a DCPS advocacy group. Hindsight proves that there was good reason to assume the worst.
Prime time for summer roofing projects comes in late winter, when most school systems solicit bids for the best prices and performers. “It’s a much better market in February than in May,” says Montgomery County school facilities chief William Wilder, who notes that the longer arc also allows time to make adjustments. The five school-roof jobs Wilder is overseeing will finish Aug. 26.
In late winter, though, Williams was busy with other matterstrying to fill positions after key subordinates jumped ship, and defending a controversial effort to close 18 schools. Planning for the summer roof projects fell to capital facilities director Bud Siegel, an engineer who had worked with Williams in two previous jobs. With minimal staff support and no school construction experience, Siegel was in way over his head, say insiders at the DCPS operation. “Bud didn’t know what was going on,” says one. “He was just looking at paperwork without having the institutional knowledge.”
Whatever his credentials, Siegel left in early April, a departure that coincided with the departure of at least two DCPS construction managers. Siegel’s replacement, a Williams protégé from New York, settled in four weeks later. Even as the key months for contracting roofers slipped away, Williams and his staff were busy deciding which schools should be closed for good. “He spent all of his staff energy, all of his staff time on closing schools,” says Mary Filardo, who directs the nonprofit 21st Century School Fund. “He didn’t prepare for the summer.”
People close to the facilities division describe an office in disarray. “They were dealing with a 17-ring circus,” says one observer, who believes Williams has far too many responsibilitieshe oversees nearly every nonacademic DCPS function. But if Williams was overburdened, he certainly didn’t indicate as much to the control board in his June briefing presentation. Even though requests for proposals (RFPs) on the roof work had not yet gone out, Williams bragged that a “request for qualifications” of contractors was on the streeta mostly meaningless step that nevertheless suggested work was progressing. (Only 16 of the 42 subsequent roof projects ended up with “prequalified” contractors.)
Williams now admits it took him until June to learn a lesson he should have mastered on his first day: Contractors hate to deal with DCPS. Under Williams’ predecessors, the school systemwith the help of an inept city treasurermanaged to alienate contractors in every way possible: late payments, nonpayment, last-minute contract amendments, and so on. And after seeing the unrealistic work pace DCPS was demanding in roofing RFPs, prominent area contractors found little reason to take a chance on the new leadership. “[Contractors] weren’t even going to get mixed up in that DCPS mess,” says a facilities administrator at a Northern Virginia school system. “They knew the blame was going to end up on them.”
No wonder, then, that some bids from contractors nearly doubled Williams’ initial budget estimates, according to a source familiar with the contracting process. Facing an unworkable situation, Williams lost three key weeks between late June and early July trying to bring in reasonable prices and contractors interested in huge roofing jobs on ridiculously short notice.
Smack in the middle of this crisis, Williams faced his semiannual hearing with D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye K. Christian to review fire-code violations. Williams testified on July 10 that work would begin on July 14a commitment the judge interpreted as hard hats on the roofs. When July 17 brought a new hearing but no roof work, Williams got a scolding from Christian, and the next week served up new starting dates. He said work on 20 schools would begin before July 25, and on 23 more the following week. (Even those dates were optimistic: As of Aug. 5, Williams reported to the judge that roof-work progress was at 0 or 1 percent for 26 schools.)
By mid-July it was clear that Williams could not repair all the schools on time. But while Christian got busy canceling summer programs at facilities undergoing roof work, DCPS officials issued no notice to parents that the schools would probably not open on Sept. 2. One observer who worked closely with Williams believes the general simply assumed the judge would relent and let schools open with construction crews on the roof. “Everybody knew that the judge was not allowing work when construction was going on,” the source explains. “[Williams and his staff] were blind to it. They simply couldn’t believe it. They didn’t want to believe it.”
As Christian’s resolve became clear, Williams and other DCPS officials began to publicly pressure Parents United to drop its lawsuit, a move that would strip Christian of her authority to shutter the schools. (One of the school trustees, Maudine Cooper, suggested that angry parents should send their day-care bills for the extra three weeks to Parents United.) When Parents United refused to drop the suit, DCPS agreed to file a joint petition that would allow work to proceed with classes in session. But Christian said no, which came as no surprise to Parents United. “We knew [this] year that the judge didn’t allow kids to be in Randle Highlands and other schools while work was going on,” says Rice-Thurston.
When he’s not blaming Parents United or Christian for the debacle, Williams musters an even more bureaucratic excuse: that DCPS didn’t receive an expected $20 million in city bond funding for the projects until July. But the $20 millionthe last installment of Williams’ current $50-million capital improvements budgetwas available to DCPS right after the city sold the bonds on June 4; even a Becton memo to employees dated Aug. 12 acknowledges that the money arrived “near the end of June.” The excuse also ignores school budget documents that show that by June 30 Williams still had $19 million in funding left to contractmore than enough to whip the roofs into shape.
“It would be wiser for [DCPS officials] to say, ‘Look we miscalculated,’” says Mary Levy, a lawyer who represents Parents United. “If they promised less and just did what they promised, then people would be delighted.”
This isn’t the first time Williams has been in a jam for overpromising. He learned how to paint a rosy sheen over management fiascoes as head of construction at New York City’s public schools from 1989 to 1991. Throughout his tenure in New York, Williams insisted that projects under his purview were on schedule and often under budget. Audits requested by school system trustees in early 1991 suggested otherwise, causing a tense standoff between Williams and the trustees. Williams resigned later that year.
Such a scenario is unlikely in D.C.not because Williams isn’t screwing up, but because his power is unchecked. In June, the control board granted Williams the extraordinary privilege of approving all contracts without prior review. The school board of trusteeswhich can’t even confirm whether or not it has approved Williams’ school repair budgetdoesn’t do contract review, either. That leaves the work of planning, bidding, negotiating deals, and evaluating progress all in Williams’ hands.
Williams’ office has refused formal requests by Washington City Paper to itemize how it’s spending the $50 million in FY 97 capital improvements money. (City Paper has had to file a Freedom of Information Act request for routine budget information.) Johnson, Williams’ deputy, will say only that the whole $50 million “has been obligated to current projects.” Nevertheless, DCPS chief financial officer Ed Stephenson confirms that more than $15 million of that total currently sits unassigned to any contracta giant rainy-day fund.
At this point, Christian is the only one who has dared to exercise oversight over Williams. Earlier this month, Christian asked Williams why weeks had passed between “notice to proceed” dates and the dates on which roof work actually began.
“This is quite normalthe way I’ve always done this type of work,” Williams replied. So everything’s normal at DCPS: Buildings are in disrepair, schools will open late, and the people in charge are scrambling for cover.CP