D.C. Schools, Parents Settle Longstanding Suit
A 5-year-old lawsuit over thousands of fire-code violations in the District of Columbia schools was settled last week, with the city government pledging hundreds of millions of dollars for repairs to the system's buildings.
The Nov. 3 settlement led District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Kaye K. Christian to dismiss the case, returning oversight of repairs and decisions about school openings and closings to relieved school officials.
"We were, of course, very pleased" by the settlement, said Beverly Lofton, a spokeswoman for the 79,000-student school system. "We're ready to move ahead with our academic program. ... We were a little distracted."
The agreement between the Washington school system and the advocacy group Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, which filed the lawsuit, came as parents' patience wore thin under the threat of further court-ordered school closings.
All of the system's 146 schools had already opened at least three weeks late this fall, the third time in four years that fire-code violations or repair projects such as this year's roof replacements tripped up an on-time start. Eight of the schools did not open with the others or were later closed under order of Judge Christian, who refused to allow repairs to be undertaken with students in the buildings. ("Once Again, D.C. Schools Off to Late Start," Sept. 3, 1997.)
"Many parents were getting to the point they wanted the lawsuit to be resolved so the children wouldn't have to go to school every day wondering if their school was on the list" for closing, said Alieze Stallworth, the legislative chairwoman for the D.C. Congress of PTAS and the mother of three city school students.
Many in the city had questioned the need for some of the recent closings, arguing that repairs such as replacement of boilers could be done safely while students were in the building. Critics of Judge Christian's oversight of the schools said that some of her orders needlessly disrupted students' academic programs.
11,000 Violations Fixed
Nevertheless, Ms. Stallworth said the suit had served an important purpose.
Since the lawsuit was filed in 1992, the school system has been forced to correct more than 11,000 fire-code violations.
Delabian Rice-Thurston, the executive director of Parents United, acknowledged that the disruption to schooling created pressure for a settlement. But she added that it was in everyone's best interest to allow Julius W. Becton Jr., the retired U.S. Army general hired a year ago to shape up the school system, to make a good showing.
With Mr. Becton as the district's chief executive officer, "there's the possibility of new funding" from Congress, which is badly needed to repair schools top to bottom, she said.
Mr. Becton and other top school officials could not be reached for comment.
Under the terms of the settlement:
- A local real estate developer chosen by both sides will oversee the school system's repair plans.
- Fire officials will keep inspecting school buildings regularly and enforcing the code.
- The city, which this year has budgeted $80 million for school repairs, will use at least 27.5 percent of the money it borrows for capital projects in future years to fix up the schools.
Still, over five years, the school system would have only $245 million for overall repairs that both Parents United and system officials say will cost $487 million.
City officials agreed to ask Congress for the difference, but federal lawmakers are under no obligation to come up with the money.
"That's the deficiency in what we've done," Ms. Rice-Thurston said. "I would love to have held out for $487 million, but we weren't going to get that."
Ms. Rice-Thurston said she'd like every parent organization in the country, especially ones in big cities with "rotten tax bases," to work for fire-code enforcement in schools as way of forcing more attention to the nation's school construction needs.
The U.S. General Accounting Office estimated in 1995 it would take $112 billion over the following three years to bring the nation's schools up to par.
And experts believe the nation's school buildings, especially the older ones, are rife with fire-code violations.
Some parents disagree with the advocacy group that the settlement is as good as it could be. They are especially concerned that, under the agreement, Mr. Becton and four other members of the nine-member emergency school board that runs the system can veto the facilities adviser's recommendations in a public vote.
But Donald A. Brown, the adviser and a prominent real estate developer in the city, said he expects to hold his own.
"I intend to be an active participant," he said. "And I will be upset and let the world know if I don't get all the information I should be given."
In the past, parents have complained that they could receive some information only through the court.
The 68-year-old Mr. Brown, who will draw no salary or expenses, said he expects at first to work nearly full time on the district's schools.