by Mark Lieberman
Current Newspapers staff writer
Murch Elementary School students will relocate to a trailer complex on the University of the District of Columbia campus next school year, then move back to campus in fall 2017 to ride out the remainder of the construction, D.C. Public Schools announced Friday [January 22].
City agencies have been deliberating for weeks about the most feasible plan of action for Murch, which will undergo a two-year, multi-phase renovation beginning this summer. At the end of the $68 million project, the school’s existing building will be upgraded, while an addition will house a new cafeteria and gymnasium.
School system officials floated several “swing space” options for Murch students at a community meeting in December. The final decision is a compromise between two of those ideas. Relocating to UDC was the most expensive proposal, but the current solution will use that strategy for only one school year – setting up students in trailers on the campus field closer to Van Ness Street NW, with the field closest to Yuma Street NW serving as play space. The following year, students and staff will relocate back to Murch’s existing building and some temporary trailers there as construction continues.
“The builder will focus on getting the existing Murch building renovated and complete and ready for students in August 2017, which means many of the students will have access to a modernized space a year earlier than anticipated,” a letter from D.C. Public Schools told parents on Friday.
Martha McIntosh, co-president of the Murch Home and School Association, described the school system’s choice as a hasty one influenced by outside factors. McIntosh said she heard from D.C. Public Schools representatives that UDC’s under-negotiation plans to build a new turf field in 2017 would limit Murch students’ stay on the campus to one year. The school system only started considering the option of split locations once it heard that news from UDC – less than 72 hours before officials made their final decision.
McIntosh said the decision was announced only a few hours after her team had a conference call with school system officials. She also said the officials told her team that splitting the locations was not their first choice.
It wasn’t the top choice for McIntosh’s team, either, she said: “The SIT made clear to them that it was not only not our first choice, but we felt it had significant problems and was really a bad choice.”
The parents’ first choice for the students would have been to spend the full length of the construction at UDC. Without that option, McIntosh and others want the school to continue to work with them on finding a solution that puts them in an alternative single place for the duration. Community members had opposed proposals to use Lafayette Elementary’s trailer complex or to stay at Murch throughout the renovation; a third option, the Capital Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church at 3150 Chesapeake St. NW, never gained much support.
The school system’s letter to parents acknowledges that some will find the decision frustrating and pledges to let all voices be heard as plans move forward. The letter says the D.C. Department of General Services, which oversees school renovations, and its builders “are still working together to examine exactly what the site will look like after 1 year, but it will be safe and ready for students when they return. As we have outlined in previous communications, there is not a perfect solution, and this plan is not without challenges.”
McIntosh and others are concerned that the additional relocation will cause significant disruption to the students and staff, who will have to pack up their classrooms on three different occasions before the dust is settled. There are also concerns about the decision’s impact on project costs. The school system previously indicated that the relocation effort is part of the project’s $68 million budget, but the school improvement team hasn’t yet determined whether this split effort will be more cost-effective than just one of the alternatives.
D.C. Public Schools spokesperson Michelle Lerner relayed comment from the Department of General Services in response to a question about cost.
“Given the level of complexity involved with all the swing space solutions which have been considered over the last several weeks, DCPS is considering allocating additional funds to ensure the swing space can be constructed without impact to the modernization plans,” Lerner wrote.
Plans for addressing new traffic patterns at the swing space locations also haven’t been discussed publicly or with Murch parents, according to McIntosh. She also said the university’s field space is currently overgrown and not completely suitable for play.
Lerner relayed another comment from the Department of General Services in response to questions about traffic and play space, noting that the latter agency has hired a traffic consultant and is in talks with UDC about letting Murch use its northern soccer field.
Maggie Gumbinner, co-president of the Murch Home and School Association, said she hopes the team can change the school system’s mind, or at least convince officials to provide clearer information about future plans.
“What’s sad to me about this is it doesn’t seem to be a decision made based on what’s best for the students or what’s best for the school, but rather what’s going to be the easiest for them to deal with,” Gumbinner said.
School improvement team cochair Laura Kaiser acknowledged that some parents have said they’re willing to weather the difficulties of the years ahead because it will mean a larger, more modern building at the end. But Kaiser said her team plans to fight for what they believe is a better solution.
Lerner said D.C. Public Schools will continue to work with stakeholders and review controversial aspects of the project.
© Current Newspapers. Republished with permission from the January 27th, 2016 issue of the Northwest Current. Download the newspaper here.