Holly Ramsawh has a four-year-old daughter in pre-K at Shepherd Elementary School in Ward 4. The school, located at 7800 14th St. NW, has been getting a multi-million-dollar modernization over the past few years, but parents say various components of it have been repeatedly delayed. Some point to the school’s cafeteria and gym as being too small for its 300-plus students and generally in poor, outdated condition.
“Sometimes [my daughter has] had to move to a different class because the banging is too loud,” Ramsawh says of the work that’s already taken place at school. “It’s been such an inconvenience for the past few years.”
On Twitter, Shepherd parents have alleged “rats and fire hazards” as well as an “unsafe gym floor” at the school. Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd has said his constituents have reported food preparation and storage problems there, on top of a lack of ADA compliance. An online petition that urges the District to finish the school’s modernization garnered 425 signatures.
Now, Shepherd is set to lose $12.4 million in renovation funds in the District’s fiscal year 2017 budget, which the D.C. Council approved on first reading on Tuesday. The Council’s Committee on Education, led by At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, had decided to appropriate the money—in different amounts—to seven other schools for their own capital projects. In explaining the defunding last week, Grosso said the proposed $12.4 million allocation “did not make any sense” objectively.
The education committee had adopted a revised model for determining which of D.C.’s approximately 110 public schools should get updated first, Grosso continued. That model is based on a school’s last significant capital project, a calculation of the investments made in it over the past two decades, and student enrollment, among other factors. In essence, schools that haven’t received any modernizations to date will get fully modernized before the District turns to completing started renovations.
On a list of the public schools most in need of modernization, Grosso’s committee ranked Shepherd 84th. Lawmakers noted in a report outlining the model that in previous years, some schools received renovations following fierce community advocacy, which was considered “too political.” “School communities that were able to mobilize and effectively lobby the government went first,” the committee report notes. “Communities that did not have the capacity or privilege to do so had their projects delayed.”
The money originally allocated to Shepherd in the fiscal year 2017 budget is set to go toward schools ranked higher up on the list—the majority within the top 20 assessed to be most in need of fixes. Those schools are located on both sides of the Anacostia River. Still, Shepherd parents say they’re unsure when—and how much—money will return in future city budgets.
Ramsawh says she’s sympathetic to other communities needing updates for their schools, but feels “extremely frustrated” that Shepherd’s promised modernization is being kicked further down the road. She adds that the school is “a victim of bad timing.”
“I have heard frustrations from other parents,” notes Ramsawh, who intends to keep her daughter enrolled at Shepherd. “People who were planning to send their kids [to the school] are now really apprehensive about talk of rodent droppings in the cafeteria.”
Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s submitted budget for next fiscal year contains an extra $220 million for school modernizations. But that money can only go so far, as councilmembers discussed during a legislative session on Tuesday. Todd, who’d characterized the school’s defunding as “unconscionable” last week, introduced an amendment to the budget that identified $4 million from other capital projects to be reallocated to Shepherd. The amendment was defeated eight to four (with one absence).
Grosso said he’d work with Todd on future construction at Shepherd, but added that the school wouldn’t be ready for gym and cafeteria updates next fiscal year since there aren’t designs for them; his committee’s rankings are based on 4,600 data points.
“If we’re going to start moving things around in the budget, we end up where we were a few years ago with the loudest voices [getting what they want],” the at-large councilmember said. “This amendment is not a good one. It doesn’t set a good precedent for moving forward on this [new modernization] approach.”
“We have to move [the funds] to schools that [are in worse conditions] than what is being described at Shepherd,” Chairman Phil Mendelson told his colleagues in opposing Todd’s amendment. “We can’t do school modernization on a subjective basis.”
Says Ramsawh, “We love Shepherd and just hope it gets the renovations it deserves. I don’t think the kids should be punished.”
The Council will vote on the budget a second and final time in two weeks.