We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
For almost a decade now, Ron Hillyer has picked up after the kids at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. He was the guy who moved in the shiny new computers, fixed the water fountain, and mopped the bathroom floor. Two years ago, he requested repairs when bricks started falling off the wall of an exit stairway. The school system’s central office responded with a temporary fix, which, like all things temporary, didn’t last.
In March, D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye Christian ordered the school closed because the crumbling stairwaywhich was barricaded by thenstood in violation of the city’s fire code. For a couple of grueling weeks, the stairway grabbed the full attention of city politicos, bureaucrats, and furious parentsuntil Georgetown University came to the rescue and paid for the repairs.
Turns out that the eroding stairwell was the most benign of Duke Ellington’s tumors. The high school, a 100-year-old building on 35th and R Streets NW, is a monument to neglect. Inside the sole boys’ bathroom, one of the toilets is missing, another won’t flush, and a urinal is leaking, Hillyer reports. Students have complained of cockroaches and leaky ceilings.
As the supervising janitor at Duke Ellington, Hillyer says he did everything he could to keep the place sanitary with limited supplies and support. His boss, who refuses to comment, apparently didn’t agree: He ordered Hillyer to turn in his keys the day before Christian closed the school. By Hillyer’s account, his boss transferred him in order to deflect the heat from school administrators. Newly installed school overseers under the command of retired Gen. Julius Becton are scrambling to place blame for the school system’s failings, Hillyer claims. “I was told never to return again, after all I’ve done,” he says.
Hillyer has spent the last 20 years as a janitor in the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). He wanted to stay among Duke Ellington’s artists because he considers himself one of them. He is a performer, once upon a time a professional actor and talent manager, and still an amateur entertainer in his current incarnation.
Back in the late ’80s, long after he’d packed in his arts career, Hillyer noticed an ad in the Washington Post calling for black men to play Civil War soldiers in the film Glory. “It caught my interest because I didn’t know blacks were in the Civil War,” Hillyer says. He opens up his bulging scrapbook to pictures of Hillyer with Matthew Broderick, Hillyer with Morgan Freeman, Hillyer with Denzel Washington.
Ever since, he has gone around speaking to Duke Ellington classes in full Union Army regalia. He started out just telling them about black soldiers. Soon he expanded, lecturing about the Klan, Malcolm X, and black athletes. He goes to halfway houses and juvenile detention centers as well, adjusting his show for each crowd. A self-proclaimed “motivational speaker,” Hillyer gets bundles of thank you notes from the kids he reaches, many with crayon pictures of Civil War soldiers in tanks and helicopters.
Since he got banished from Duke Ellington, Hillyer has been at home awaiting reassignment. He has returned to Duke Ellington once, to clean out his desk.
Ronny McGill, a maintenance worker at Duke Ellington who worked under Hillyer for about seven years, says his former supervisor did laps around his job description. He regularly loaned bus money to cash-strapped kids and even dipped into his own pocket to buy equipment for the weightlifting club he started, according to McGill. “They respected him because he wasn’t an authority figure. He was a friend,” says McGill.
Since Hillyer’s quiet transfer, students have started asking McGill where Hillyer is. “I can’t see where they could justify [transferring him],” McGill says. “He was doing his job and more.”
The results of his efforts are not easy to see. Duke Ellington is a mess by any objective standard, and it’s difficult to decide where Hillyer’s individual responsibility ends and systemic failure begins. But since Becton has taken over, Hillyer and other DCPS employees say an atmosphere of fear pervades the schools, and scapegoating has become a full-time pursuit for school administrators.
Who is to blame for the stairway debacle? Even Hillyer himself gets forgetful when pushed for answers. Maybe he deserved the boot. No one will say.
Duke Ellington principal Carolyn Wilson refused to return repeated calls from Washington City Paper. “She’s scared,” Hillyer explains. Too scared, it seems, to comment on an employee to whom she awarded a Blue Ribbon Certificate of Appreciation in 1994 for his “valuable contribution and service” to the school. An assistant principal at the school also declined to comment, conceding only that Hillyer is “a nice guy.” On the day he walked out of the school for the last time, Hillyer says he passed the principal and assistant principal. They avoided looking him in the eye, Hillyer says, “because they know they didn’t stand up for me.”
In less than three years, more than 50 District schools have been cited for fire-code violations and ordered closed. Through a retroactive vision of accountability, the new school administration meets each crisis with a crudely guided ax. RIFs have had a chilling effect on DCPS employees, all the way up and down the system. “Staff are telling us they feel intimidated. They feel like people are watching them,” says Mary Levy, counsel for Parents United, a school advocacy group. “In D.C. public schools, the most frequent form of physical exercise is finger-pointing.”CP