Forrester Construction-built Anacostia High School
Forrester Construction-built Anacostia High School

Councilmembers have read last week’s brutal audit of the school modernization program and, in the words of Councilmember Anita Bonds, they’re “very outraged.” On Wednesday, two D.C. Council committees held a joint hearing on how the District could have spent so much money on schools and gotten so little in return.

At one point, the councilmembers’ anger at mayoral administration inspired a surprise appearance by Muriel Bowser.

The D.C. Auditor’s report, which covered the costs of school modernization between 2010 and 2013, found the District spending hundreds of millions of dollars with little oversight behind where the money goes or reasoning behind which schools receive renovations.

“The school modernization program has no effective cost controls, and no one is in charge,” said D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson.

Education committee chairman David Grosso pointed to 24 schools he says still haven’t received renovations.

“There’s still kids going to school with rats and windows that don’t close, ” Grosso said.

Much of the blame in the audit falls on DCPEP, a joint venture between two private firms that’s tasked with handling nearly all of the school modernization contracting.

When the audit team reviewed expense documents at the District’s Department of General Services, 37 percent of expenses lacked proper documentations. At DCPEP, on the other hand, they found a whopping 84 percent of the expenses lacked enough documentation.

Handing school modernization oversight to private contractors, transportation and environment chairwoman Mary Cheh said, was when the 2006 modernization program “seemed to go off the rails.”

“The process is one that’s almost rigged against accountability,” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.

The audit only covered modernization projects in the the Adrian Fenty and Vince Gray administrations, meaning that it should have been easy an easy hearing for Bowser’s staff. But the executive branch’s lead witness—-Jeff Bonvechio, DGS’ deputy director for capital construction—-didn’t inspire much optimism in councilmembers about future spending oversight.

When Mendelson asked Bonvechio whether DCPEP should lose their city contract in light of the audit, Bonvechio equivocated, pointing instead to the contractor’s success on new construction.

“So based on how pretty a building looks, they’re doing good work?” Mendelson said.

Bonvechio inspired groans from Grosso when he revealed how many school and library projects are built with pricey, theft-friendly copper. When Bonvechio flailed on a question, Cheh complained that she couldn’t rely on his answers.

“You sent us somebody who can’t answer our questions,” Cheh said to Bowser staffers in the Council chamber. “That’s not right.”

The feisy councilmembers inspired Bowser to make an impromptu appearance at the hearing. In her testimony, Bowser stressed that her administration wasn’t responsible for the blown oversight revealed in the audit.

“What I came to realize was that our government had a model on how to get school construction done, and that model is very expensive,” Bowser said.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery