by Elizabeth Wiener
Current Staff Writer
Complaints include broken toilets, shattered windows, peeling paint, loose handrails, and malfunctioning heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Cheh aides identified the most serious problem as an inoperable key system on the parking garage door at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School’s Woodley Park campus, forcing school officials to leave the door open and allowing “random people driving inside the school building.” The garage door was replaced this summer, but the key fobs were not activated, according to an email from Cheh’s staff.
A spokesperson for the Department of General Services, which is responsible for both maintenance and construction of public schools citywide, said Tuesday that the agency’s facilities management team has “prioritized” Cheh’s list and will address the majority of items by the time school opens.
“We’ll get the prioritized items done first, so the opening of school won’t be impacted,” said spokesperson Kenneth Diggs.
Diggs also pointed out that the schools are in far better shape now than they were before his department was created. “We’re a victim of our own success. Each year things get better,” he said.
Cheh, in an interview, agreed that there is “no comparison” between conditions at the public schools now and when she took office in 2007.
“That was a nightmare. Schools were falling apart. Things are so far improved now, and our schools are in very good shape.”
But, she said, she still notices obvious situations — like the inoperable garage door at Oyster — that should have been addressed, repairs only half-done, and relatively new equipment that failed soon after warranties ran out.
“I worry that DGS has such a sprawling jurisdiction” that repairs get overlooked, Cheh said, adding that she wants to be sure the department holds its contractors accountable for repair costs.
Cheh had made her “schools readiness tour” a ritual since her first year in office, seeking to make sure routine problems get fixed before school starts in late August. The aim, her office said, is to ensure that physical problems — anything from missing books to broken air conditioners — don’t obstruct learning for students in Ward 3 schools.
[The August 14th] tour of Deal Middle found a broken column holding up an overhang at the sixth-grade entrance to the school, with a makeshift 2-by-4 board providing support. Metal grates near the gym and cafeteria were broken, as were several lights. Cheh’s list said the problems were reported more than a year ago, but not yet fixed.
At Wilson High, also recently modernized, Cheh found “lots of problems with the doors and locks.” She said many exterior doors do not close securely, and some rooms containing expensive equipment don’t have operable locks.
At Eaton Elementary, a leaky pipe in the air conditioning caused a mildew smell in a kindergarten classroom. Two bathrooms lacked sinks, and only three of the school’s eight HVAC compressors were fully working.
At Murch Elementary, she said, the door to one bathroom doesn’t close, a wall needs repair, one sink backs up, and some soap dispensers don’t work. “Please fix them,” Cheh’s email pleads.
The next day, it was off to Oyster, a relatively new building, which seemed to generate the most complaints. The air conditioning has had “major problems” since March, she reported. There was a hole in one bathroom wall, a cracked toilet leaking water, rips in the front office carpet that were creating tripping hazards, and “lots of old exposed roots” next to the basketball court.
The same day, at Stoddert Elementary, Cheh found a soap dispenser ripped off the wall, a poorly secured handrail on one stairway and a shattered window. The school needs a rat-proof trash container, she said, and a field on the upper playground doesn’t drain properly, creating a “large mud pit” when it rains.
At Key Elementary, there were missing bricks at the main entrance, broken tiles near an outside door, lights in the parking lot that don’t work properly, and clogged gutters that cause standing water on the roof.
At Hardy Middle, Cheh found a broken urinal in one bathroom and tall grass and overgrown shrubs on the grounds.
Today [Wednesday, August 21st], Cheh will tour Hearst and Mann, two elementary schools undergoing complete modernization and expansion. Both are the scene of full-bore efforts to renovate the original school buildings by summer’s end. Diggs said both of the 1930s-era buildings will be ready to open on time, with construction of additions beginning this fall.
FHC editor’s note: WAMU web producer and reporter Martin Austermuhle was with Council member Cheh during her Hearst tour. He tweeted:
.@marycheh touring Hearst Elementary, which is undergoing $9.4 million renovation. Kids will still use trailers until 2 new bldgs. finished.
— Martin Austermuhle (@maustermuhle) August 21, 2013
At Hearst Elementary, principal says that someone in a truck took 200-250 school chairs yesterday. Unclear whether stolen or taken by city.
— Martin Austermuhle (@maustermuhle) August 21, 2013
Also on [Wednesday’s agenda was] a visit to Janney Elementary, a recently modernized school where she has already lodged some complaints. According to her listing, there are “lots of problems with equipment just installed two years ago.” The roof of the new cafeteria is moldy, she reports, and some air conditioners are not working. The city has made many repairs, but the council member is asking for a “permanent solution.”
Reprinted, with permission, from the August 21st issue of The Northwest Current.