School & District Management

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

By Beth Reinhard — September 03, 1997 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print


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


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School Climate & Safety Webinar
Praise for Improvement: Supporting Student Behavior through Positive Feedback and Interventions
Discover how PBIS teams and educators use evidence-based practices for student success.
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
IT Management Webinar
Build a Digitally Responsive Educational Organization for Effective Digital-Age Learning
Chart a guided pathway to digital agility and build support for your organization’s mission and vision through dialogue and collaboration.
Content provided by Bluum
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Data Webinar
Drive Instruction With Mastery-Based Assessment
Deliver the right data at the right time—in the right format—and empower better decisions.
Content provided by Instructure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Women Get Overlooked for the Superintendent's Job. How That Can Change
3 female superintendents spell out concrete solutions from their own experience.
4 min read
Susana Cordova, former superintendent for Denver Public Schools.
Susana Cordova is deputy superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District and former superintendent for Denver Public Schools.
Allison V. Smith for Education Week
School & District Management Opinion You Can't Change Schools Without Changing Yourself First
Education leaders have been under too much stress keeping up with day-to-day crises to make the sweeping changes schools really need.
Renee Owen
5 min read
conceptual illustration of a paper boat transforming into an origami bird before falling off a cliff
School & District Management Opinion Principals Are Running Scared. Here's How to Steady Them
Mentorship is an old idea with new currency, write the authors of a recent book on helping school leaders thrive.
Phyllis Gimbel & Peter Gow
5 min read
Illustration of a hand holding a flashlight to help guide a person out of a dark space
School & District Management With Teacher Morale in the Tank, What's the Right Formula to Turn It Around?
Higher pay is only part of the mix, education experts say.
3 min read
Image of Elementary students and teachers walking in a school hallway.