by Deirdre Bannon
Current Newspapers correspondent
Reprinted, with permission, from the February 18th edition of the Northwest Current. Download the newspaper here.
Newly appointed deputy mayor for education Jennifer Niles is promising that the $65 million needed for Murch Elementary School’s full modernization will be delivered in the mayor’s 2016 budget, due in April.
But after two years of delays, many parents and other stakeholders feel that a promise is not a guarantee. And when Niles made her pledge at a Feb. 10 community meeting, any sense of excitement was tempered with questions about what will actually happen to the overcrowded 1929 school.
Murch, located at 4810 36th St., was slated for full modernization in 2013 with a $32.5 million budget that some worried was insufficient. Funding was pushed back a year, but the D.C. Council approved $44 million for the project in May 2014, to be allocated over the next three fiscal years. Then last month, Mayor Muriel Bowser shifted $5 million of the fiscal year 2015 allocation to active school construction projects, saying it would later be refunded to Murch.
A revised modernization budget for Murch now calls for a total of $65 million to $70 million to complete the project. Niles said Bowser would allocate the additional amount – approximately $25 million – in the city’s next budget, which would likely be distributed over the next few fiscal years.
“I talked with the mayor about the $65 million,” Niles said at last week’s meeting at Murch. “She knows the additional amount needed for the building, and she is committed to that…. The money will be there.”
Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh also reiterated her support for Murch at the meeting.
“I met with the mayor myself and I told her that my top budget priority is Murch, and she was very receptive,” Cheh said. “I’m feeling optimistic – I probably shouldn’t say that, but I am.”
Cheh added that she is “very confident” that if the money for Murch is in the mayor’s budget, the council will approve it.
If, however, the amount needed for the full modernization isn’t included or approved in the city budget, plans would need to be reconfigured for a phased modernization, which would take several years to complete.
Under the full modernization plan currently proposed, construction at Murch would begin in June 2016 and continue for 18 to 24 months, with a planned re-opening in fall 2018. During that time, students would be relocated to a “swing space” in a location to be determined.
Advocates for Murch have long decried conditions at the elementary school, one of the largest in the city. It’s overcrowded, with 626 students currently enrolled in a space with capacity for 479, according to D.C. Public Schools. Plans for the new school would accommodate 700 students, a figure that the school system says would meet neighborhood population estimates.
There are signs of progress for Murch. The D.C. Department of General Services named a project manager, Mike Quadrino, and the agency selected R. McGhee & Associates architects in partnership with Hord Coplan Macht to design the new building. The D.C.-based R. McGhee & Associates worked on the addition at Deal Middle School, the full modernization of Hearst Elementary, and the first phase of modernization of Peabody Elementary in Northeast.
The General Services Department anticipates being able to share initial design concepts with the school improvement team and rest of the community in the next few months, according to spokesperson Kenneth Diggs.
Despite these advancements, many at last week’s meeting suggested that they won’t believe the project is actually happening until the shovels are in the ground.
“One of my frustrations is that we’re hearing about a commitment from the government, but it’s a message we’ve heard over and over again,” said one parent.
Many are also concerned about the swing space, which could take students off site for the duration of the project. This is a particular challenge for Murch: A substantial amount of square footage must be added to the current building, but because a portion of the lot belongs to the National Park Service and can’t be built upon, it’s not yet clear whether students could be accommodated in trailers on site.
“Until we know we have a design which has been shared with the community and approved by DCPS and DGS, we do not know our exact needs with respect to swing space in terms of temporary trailer space needed and whether or not all such trailers could be accommodated on the school lot,” Diggs said in an interview.
The design also must preserve historically significant portions of the building.
One parent at the meeting asked if D.C. Public Schools had assessed test-score data to determine whether student performance declines during construction projects when students are in swing space. The agency has not analyzed such data, Diggs said. That parent told The Current his family is planning to move to Montgomery County due to concerns about disruptions to his children’s education during construction.
The Murch school improvement team will meet in the first week of March, and a community meeting and another gathering for neighbors directly adjacent to the school are planned for April. The General Services Department intends to have a webpage for the project up within the next two months.