Published Online: May 7, 1997


Senate Panel Backs $22 Million for School Repairs in D.C.

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The District of Columbia school system was given hope last week that Congress might be more willing to provide extra financial help now that the ailing system is under new management.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a broad federal spending bill that includes more than $22 million for emergency repairs for the public schools here. Meanwhile, in the House, a key member last week told local officials that he would push for more money for teacher training in the city.

A spokesman for Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., who led the Senate effort, said the $22 million would cover basic repairs so Washington's schools would meet health codes and open on time in the fall.

Five schools saw their opening days postponed last year because of fire-code violations. In 1994, the entire school system was delayed in opening for three days because nearly one-third of the city's public schools were found to have violations. ("Fire-Code Violations Send 6,000 to Makeshift Classrooms in D.C.," Sept. 21, 1994.)

At a House hearing last week on the state of the 79,000-student Washington school system, school and city officials gave lawmakers a bright picture of the system's improvements since a federally appointed board took over the schools late last year and appointed a new chief executive. The officials also admitted, however, that many more daunting tasks lie ahead.

"Despite all the negative news, I believe these are exciting times for the District of Columbia," said Kevin P. Chavous, a City Council member and the chairman of the council committee that oversees the schools. "It is during this time of budgetary chaos and constraints that we can begin to rebuild our entire educational infrastructure."

Discord Among Witnesses

Julius W. Becton, the chief executive officer of the District of Columbia schools, told House members that the system is expecting to draw up long-term plans for facilities maintenance, academic standards, and personnel-contract management. The retired U.S. Army lieutenant general emphasized that the system would be fully accountable to the public.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democrat who is the city's nonvoting delegate to Congress, had some public relations advice, though, for Mr. Becton: Give local residents specific information about the short-term progress of the schools, and that will keep them from leaving the city for better conditions in the suburbs.

Despite the cordial reception from the House education panel's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and the House Subcommittee on the District of Columbia, discord was evident among those who testified.

Several blamed problems on the past school district administration, while one school board member complained that the board had not been given funding and resources to grant charters under the city's 1995 charter school law.

Don Reeves, the city school board's president, said the school system also did not have a chief academic officer and a clear vision for improving services. And, Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., often criticized for his city's problems, said he envisioned a school system with specialized academic high schools.

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House education committee, urged the current school administration not to lose sight of students' needs during disagreements. Mr. Goodling also assured the school officials that he would lobby for additional funds for teacher training for the city's remedial-reading program.

Shutdown Vote

Earlier in the week, the city's emergency school board of trustees--which has displaced the elected school board--voted to close 11 schools during a highly emotional public meeting. ("School-Closing Plan Poses Test for D.C. Leaders," April 16, 1997.)

The trustees originally had proposed shutting down 16 schools, but after an outcry from parents and community leaders, five schools were spared. Those schools were kept open in recognition of their top-rated programs or because relocating their students would have caused hardships, owing either to the poor quality of the students' new schools or to unsafe conditions along the routes to those schools.

The 16 schools targeted for closing were chosen because the buildings were old, in poor condition, or close to other schools.

Also last week, a federal judge upheld the authority of the city's congressionally mandated financial-control board to seize control of the school system last year and appoint the emergency school trustees and Mr. Becton.

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