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Transparency Watch: Billions Spent on D.C. School Improvement Yet Auditor Says Public In the Dark

dcogcadmin | July 6, 2015

Sparkling new buildings are in the works in the ongoing modernization of D.C. schools, begun in 2006 and slated for $1.3 billion more in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s six-year plan. But the D.C. Council’s auditor reported Wednesday (1) that the program “failed to comply with D.C. Code and lacks accountability, transparency and basic financial management.”

The auditor’s report, covering $1.2 billion spent in 2010 – 2013, noted the accountable government agencies handed key decisions and oversight to management contractors (paid $37 million) with weak review, bills are paid sometimes with little or no explanation and overruns have been widespread. (For example, the new Duke Ellington School of the Arts building may cost 4-5 times more per square foot than a 2010 master plan called for.)

Citizens concerned for effective and efficient government would have had a hard time keeping track of this giant enterprise, to take just a few examples from the report: 

·      master plans in 2010 and 2013 the auditor called “largely inconsequential,” with the more recent one not even naming schools for improvement or describing how those will be chosen;

·      unplanned projects bumped others scheduled, possibly delaying more urgent work;

·      a statutory “modernization advisory committee” for oversight and monitoring of projects and spending, added by the Council at community and experts’ urging, stopped meeting when D.C. government gave it no help to do its work;

·      annual capital improvement plans in the budget were not school specific as the law requires, and in general information is “not sufficiently organized or clearly presented to be of much use” to D.C. residents and parents who would need to dig through piles of documents to grasp the modernization program and how it will affect the quality of their child’s education;

·      no one knows the cost of each project, since the key agency “could not produce the documentation necessary to instill confidence in their cost reports” and only two of nine annual audits called for in law have been done.

On D.C. parents’ key concern — plans to fix up their neighborhood school — the auditor concluded it’s “difficult if not impossible to determine when, why and by whom schools are selected for modernization” and called for a new clear process.  

In general, the report found the District “does not currently provide the public with comprehensive data on both the state of the [modernization] program and plans for its future” and the auditor warned improvement is needed since “transparency is key to making sure the process remains equitable in fact and appearance.”

The Council will have plenty to dig into in an oversight hearing July 8 at 11:00 a.m. in Room 500 of the Wilson Building. UPDATED 7-9-15. The Post’s Michael Alison Chandler reported D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser made a surprise appearance at the hearing, promising “a more honest budgeting process for schools.”

The report is here and Michael Alison Chandler’s Washington Post coverage is here.