Once Again, D.C. Schools Off to Late Start

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Schools in the nation's capital will open late for the third time in four years, triggering questions about whether the retired Army general hired to overcome the system's past management woes will offer more of the same.

Last month, after losing a court battle for permission to finish roof work on about 50 buildings after school starts, Julius W. Becton Jr. postponed the first day from Sept. 2 to Sept. 22.

Though Mr. Becton insists the delay could not have been avoided, it has been widely perceived as a major blow for the chief executive officer, who vowed earlier this year to open the 79,000-student system on time.

The previous delays epitomized the poor management and financial troubles that led Congress to create a financial-control board in 1995 to oversee the District of Columbia government. Last November, the control board ousted Superintendent Franklin L. Smith, stripped away power from the elected school board, chose a new board of trustees, and named Mr. Becton to run the schools. ("Retired Army General Is Named D.C. Superintendent," Nov. 20, 1996.)

Chronic Fire-Code Problems

Nine months later, some parents, educators, and public officials are asking how they can expect the new guard to boost sagging test scores and graduation rates when it can't even open the schools on time.

"There's no excuse for the schools not to be open this week," said Don Reeves, a trustee and the president of the elected school board, who often spars with other members of the panel.

"The facilities planning has been a disaster," said Kathy Patterson, a member of the City Council.

The court case dates back to 1991, when a group called Parents United for D.C. Public Schools sued the school district over 5,700 fire-code violations, including missing or locked fire doors, broken alarm systems, and faulty wiring. Chronic violations under Judge Kaye K. Christian's watch forced five schools to open late last year and all schools to open three days late in 1994.("Fire-Code Violations Send 6,000 to Makeshift Classrooms in D.C.," Sept. 21, 1994.)

Mr. Becton recently announced that all the violations had been remedied, including 1,600 during his tenure, and that 50 leaky school roofs would be replaced this summer. But when Judge Christian found out last month that the roof work would not be done by the first day of school, she ruled that any breach of a roof constituted a fire-code violation and refused to let children enter the buildings on schedule.

'Didn't Have a Choice'

Her ruling caught Mr. Becton by surprise. His critics say he took on too much roof work too late in the year, and that the judge's aversion to construction while children are in school is well known to anyone who has followed the case.

But Mr. Becton, who inspected several roofs in a hard hat and tie last week, said he could not have anticipated the judge's order. He also said Congress didn't release enough money to the district in order to start construction immediately after school ended in June.

"I had every intention of opening the schools on time," said the indignant schools chief, who is known for keeping appointments with military precision. "I didn't have a choice once the judge took it out of my hands."

Several principals who attended Mr. Becton's "state of the schools" speech last week agreed. "I think anyone walking into the situation that he did would have a hard time seeing all possible glitches," said Anne Gay, the principal of Janney Elementary School.

Instead of moving children to other buildings, as Parents United suggested, or opening on time those schools where no work was scheduled, Mr. Becton elected to have all the schools open late.

He also tried to persuade the group to drop the lawsuit last month. Though Parents United did join the district's unsuccessful appeal of the judge's recent order, the group refused to drop the case.

Scrambling for three weeks of affordable day care, some families are considering plucking their children out of a system that has lost nearly 40 percent of its enrollment over the past three decades. Julia Robinson, whose eight children attended city schools, said she plans to send her two grandchildren to private schools.

"If they can afford to pay [Mr. Becton] more than $100,000, they should be able to figure out how to open the schools," Ms. Robinson said, noting the sickly smell of tar coming from the school across the street from her front porch. "I think it's shameful."

PHOTO: Chief Operating Officer Charles E. Williams, left, shows Julius W. Becton Jr. roof repairs under way at Merrit Elementary School. --Benjamin Tice Smith

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