City Paper is not for tourists
Ever since the control board grasped the reins of the District government in 1995, city residents have watched various appointed officials parachute into town to clean up the mess left by generations of corrupt and clueless politicians. Control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer was followed by Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams, and they were eventually joined by school czar Julius Becton, a retired Army general.
Like these other hotshot troubleshooters, retired Maj. Gen. Charles E. “Chuck” Williams last December assumed his positionas chief operating officer for District public schoolswith high expectations. A release from the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) hailed Williams’ “reputation for a kind of spit-and-polish discipline and for wresting command of construction from the bureaucrats and private contractors”language that was actually lifted from a glowing May 1990 New York Times profile.
Williams built his no-nonsense reputation when he marched into New York in 1989 to rescue a school system suffering from severe overcrowding and crumbling facilities. Armed with a $4.3-billion five-year capital budget, Williams managed a battery of projects that seemed to arrive on schedule and under budget. When he left in 1991, Williams recalls, a N.Y. state senator from Queens actually begged him to stay during a going-away reception.
That, anyhow, is one version of the story. A much less flattering account, told by former colleagues who refuse to speak on the record, says Williams fed the authority’s board of trustees inaccurate data that masked problems in the making.
“The general liked to walk around saying that everything was on schedule and under budget,” says a New York school construction source. “There was a veneer of that. The problem was, when you scratched beneath the surface, there was a whole lot that was not under budget and a whole lot of projects that were not on time. There was a mess. Without an independent accounting of what was going on, the authority would have fallen apart.”
Audits completed by a New York consulting firm obtained through a Freedom of Information Act Request by Washington City Paper detailed discrepancies between Williams’ official reports at the time and the status of school projects as measured by the audit. In an interview, Williams says he is proud of his performance in New York and pushes aside criticism as the product of “jealousy.”
Now Williams has become the anointed savior of a D.C. school facilities program sinking under fire-code violations, court-ordered shutdowns, and wildly misspent capital funds. With the blessing of the appointed board of trustees, he has advanced an ambitious attack plan to close 18 schools by September, modernize six others, and construct two new school buildings. Along the way, he promises to sell, lease, or enter joint ventures on 70 excess facilitiesincluding the 18 closed buildingsin order to raise up to $100 million for DCPS capital needs in the next two years.
“We’re going to make it happen,” he says.
Some D.C. school boosters don’t share his optimism. “He’s just saying that to get everybody off his case,” says Mary Filardo, director of the 21st Century School Fund, a local education-reform group. “We know that he can’t deliver on any of that. So what’s really going to happen is nothingexcept that kids are going to be moved out of their schools and put in the old schools with the leaky roofs and the bad boilers and whatever.”
Filardo’s criticism echoes a theme from Williams’ pastthat he promises more than he can deliver and leaves others to tie up the loose ends.
Almost anyone who got a good look at the DCPS infrastructure would be daunted by the task of consolidation and rebuilding, but Williams is steadfast during an inteview in his cherrywood-theme office downtown. Williams says his experience as a top general in the Army Corps of Engineers and his stint with the New York public schools have prepared him for DCPS.
“I’ve always had challenges,” the 58-year-old Williams says. “I don’t know of any job I’ve ever had that hasn’t been a challenge. So this is just another one.”
In his 29-year Army career, Williams managed billions of dollars in projects, including construction of an entire military city and an airport at Fort Drum, N.Y. But Williams says his greatest asset is his ability to motivate subordinates to do good work. Former colleague Albert Gallardo says Williams took that motivational magic with him to the New York City School Construction Authority (NYCSCA), which operates separately from the school system.
“The general is good at setting goals and getting people behind him,” says Gallardo, who arrived at NYCSCA the same year as Williams and now works at a New York PR firm. “It gave people a sense that someone was in charge. He was there at the right time for the city of New York.”
Williams is generally credited with putting NYCSCA on its feet as its first chief executive, completing the first new school construction in the New York public school system in nearly a decade. He committed more than $1.5 billion to new projects in less than two years and instituted a heralded anti-fraud program that is still in use. His achievements garnered kudos from contractor groups, architect associations, and local politicians.
A former NYCSCA official agrees Williams was successful, but that he certainly had a desirable situation to work with.
“The good news is that he got a lot of projects started,” says a former NYCSCA official who requested anonymity. “But he had more money than you could shake a stick at.”
Williams’ tour of duty at NYCSCA went pretty smoothly on the whole, but near the end of his tenure he came into conflict with the authority’s board of trustees over budget and administrative issues, according to reports in New York Newsday. The former NYCSCA official says although Williams’ reports consistently showed current projects on time and within budget, several trustees felt locked out of the process and hired an outside auditor to study the authority’s portfolio.
The former official says that the auditor, O’Brien Kreitzberg & Associates, began producing reports in May 1991 that clashed with the data Williams had put forward in the preceding months. A New York schools official who worked with NYCSCA at the time confirmed the account, saying that Williams presented numbers that the trustees could not rectify with the audit.
“The problem was that the O’Brien Kreitzberg-originated reports varied greatly from the reports coming from the general,” the New York schools official says. The official adds that the misreported data appeared to stem from nothing more than a desire to preserve the authority’s imageand Williams’ ownfor producing on-time, on-budget work.
For instance, Williams’ reports from early 1991 told the trustees that a $9.1-million renovation and expansion of PS 64 in Queens was ahead of schedule and only slightly over its project budget. Later reports from Williams shifted the project’s completion date ahead one month to October, but an O’Brien Kreitzberg audit from September found that the project was not even likely to meet that scheduleand might not be finished until January 1992.
An addition to another school in Brooklyn, PS 249, appeared to be going smoothly, according to documents Williams forwarded to the trustees in early 1991. But a review by O’Brien Kreitzberg in September 1991 found that the project had made little progress since the previous December and was more than $800,000 over budget, with no contingency funding available.
A modernization project at a performing-arts high school in Manhattan was also depicted as on schedule and under budget by Williams in his early 1991 reports to the trustees. The September 1991 audit by O’Brien Kreitzberg, however, found the project running several months behind scheduleand on pace to miss even a new deadline of March 1992.
The differences between Williams’ data and those produced by the auditor helped brew a sense of distrust, which the former public schools official says only grew after further investigation.
“He told us there were no changes [in the projects],” says the official. “We found the change orders. They were literally stuffed in somebody’s drawer in a couple of instances. We got pieces of information here and there and we put it together…and said, ‘Oh, shit.’”
The conflict reportedly boiled over in the summer of 1991, when the trustees told Williams to either make changes that would give the board increased control or make for the exit, according to the former NYCSCA official. Williams chose to leave a year before his three-year contract was set to expire, and the authority hushed the controversy, the official says.
Williams denies ever having had problems with the trustees and says his critics’ insistence on anonymity underscores their lack of credibility.
“My record is what it is,” he says. “And for some person to stand behind a tree and just lay slime on the table…that’s not fair. There are pockets of jealousy out there.” He also roundly dismisses claims that his projects were not regularly timely and on budget, and that he was forced to leave. He says his next employera company aiming to construct the first private toll road built in the U.S. in decadesactively recruited him.
“Everybody knows I was being sought after,” he says. “I resigned on my own, and I went to do something else I wanted to do. I had no conflicts.”
As chief operations officer of the Dulles Greenway in Loudoun County, Va., Williams ran into a number of heady challenges. He had to craft a deal with state officials, oversee construction requiring 36 bridges over 14 miles, and stay within the project’s $145-million budget. Williams did all of thatsix months ahead of schedule.
“It was an awesome job that he did,” says Matt Miller, a project engineer on the job who worked under Williams. “Getting through the obstacles is one of his fortes. He knows how to get to the finish line. Period.”
“Two years to the day, cars were running on it,” Williams himself says proudly about opening the road exactly two years after the Sept. 29, 1993, groundbreaking.
But problems have arisen since the completion date. Last year, a D.C.-based arbitrator ruled that the Greenway’s owner, TRIP II L.P., owed its contractor and subcontractors more than $5 million for design-change orders. The arbitrator found that TRIP II had not acknowledged the additional costs created by the change ordersbut should have.
Williams refuses to comment on the dispute over the changes, citing a recently filed suit between the contractors, which among other things alleges that he and TRIP II cut a deal with the main contractor that effectively suppressed change orders during the road’s construction.
One day after the toll road opened in 1995, Williams and the main players on the Greenway construction team began operating as Rebuild Inc. in Sterling, Va. Although Williams depicts Rebuild as a way station to retirement, his former partners say the plans were a lot biggerconstructing and managing major public-private infrastructure projects in Virginia, China, and South Africa. But the company failed in its only serious effort, a bid to take over operation and maintenance of the Dulles Toll Road. When Williams, who had served as CEO of the operation, exited Rebuild to join DCPS, the company effectively ceased to exist.
Williams arrived at DCPS accompanied by at least six loyal staffersengineers, secretaries, and assistantssome with their bags stamped from previous tours with Williams at the Pentagon, the Greenway, and Rebuild. They took over a corner of the ninth floor of the DCPS central administration building.
Williams got his official welcome in mid-January, when a judge ordered three D.C. schools closed for fire-code violations. Before the pundits could say that DCPS was sliding into its old habits under new management, Williams told the Washington Post, “Give me six months to work. We’re going to get over this. I don’t expect to be [here] again. Period.”
That’s just the kind of talk everyone wanted to hear, and when the three schools soon reopenedwith Williams saying the work done was a permanent fix, not patchworkmany in Washington breathed a sigh of relief. Williams promptly got to work on the big picture: He needed $86.6 million to get the schools free of fire-code violations by September and to install new roofs, boilers, generatorsyou name it. With barely $30 million in the school capital-fund coffers, Williams is actively lobbying for the money from the control board.
His overall estimates have failed to convince skeptics, including Filardo, who says that the numbers Williams has put forth in his $86.6-million requestpackaged as the DCPS Capital Improvements Plan for FY ’97are suspect.
“[It] has an estimate for built-up roof at [$15] a square foot,” says Filardo. “The State of Maryland has been getting them for $6 or $7 a square foot. Where are they getting their numbers?” In both New York and D.C., critics suggest that Williams comes in with big numbers to gain leverage in budget negotiations.
Williams recently plunked a 4,000-page planning document on the table, which may sound impressive, but it left many decisionmakers in the dark. Councilmember Kathy Patterson says the general’s 10-year facilities master plan, which is due on Capitol Hill next month, includes reams of raw data but no real vision for what the school system will look like in 10 years.
“There is no plan,” says Patterson of the six-volume tome. “A plan gives you a direction and a vision, and that’s not in there. There is just no expertise reflected in this at all.”
The most ambitious and controversial component of Williams’ proposal includes shutting down 18 of DCPS’s 157 schools by September. He plans to sell or lease the excess buildings, and use the anticipated $42 million in proceeds to fund improvements at existing schools, and construct two new facilities.
Williams has couched the closing plan and a separate “fast-track” plan to dispose of about 55 former school buildings as a way to make use of surplus space and generate needed revenues. Many of the former school buildings are vacant and attract crime.
“The attitude ought to be that any property that can be restored to useful life…should be,” says former D.C. Councilmember Bill Lightfoot. “I think this is the right track.”
Still, the fine print on the plan has baffled numerous school-system observers who question many of the figures the general has provided. For instance, Williams projects that the payoff from selling the 18 schools will be around $42 million, $21.4 million of which is supposed to come from the joint development of Stevens Elementary at 21st and L Streets NW. The plan’s dependence on big payoffs from schools like Stevens has convinced Patterson and other critics that poorly calculated real estate valuesand not educational prioritiesare driving the process.
“It’s unbelievable,” says one attorney who specializes in closing D.C. commercial real estate deals. “People are just laughing about the numbers. It’s nuts.”
Williams’ claim that the other surplus properties can net between $50 million and $80 million within a two-year period are based on revenue estimates from a local real estate firma questionable way to gauge development interest, according to Filardo.
“These are big, old buildings full of asbestos and lead and primarily in residential locationsthey’re not that valuable,” she says. “In some parts of the city, the land is not that valuable.”
The real estate attorney, who asked to remain anonymous, predicts that if Williams tries to stick to his fast-track schedule and get rid of all 70 properties in the near term, the result will be a fire sale.
“People are not desperate to buy an old school,” he says. “This is not what I’d call a great development opportunity. If somebody said, ‘I’ve got a great deal on a school site,’ everyone would look at them like they’re crazy.”
Filardo believes that Williams lacks an overall understanding of the challenge he faces.
“They are pretending to have a major modernization initiative,” says Filardo. “They don’t have it in their master plan. They don’t even talk about major remodernization in the master plan. So what is this? It’s an empty promise.”
But Williams says he deserves a fair shot, if not a little support, before critics feast on his proposal.
“‘Let’s help him,’” Williams says, describing the dialogue he believes should be out there. “‘Don’t try to cut his legs off because he made a proposal that seemed to be different than what has been said before. And don’t question his ability of whether or not he can do that until you give him a chance.’”
For now, Williams is unimpressed by the incoming fire.
“I feel very confident,” Williams says, “that if no one throws an obstacle in my way, that I’ll be able to pull this off.”CP