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D.C. Auditor Says School Modernizations Plagued By Cost Overruns, Delays

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A new, $122 million Dunbar High School was opened in 2013, one of many D.C. public schools that was renovated or rebuilt.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
A new, $122 million Dunbar High School was opened in 2013, one of many D.C. public schools that was renovated or rebuilt.

Over the last seven years the District has spent billions renovating and rebuilding public schools, unveiling gleaming new buildings the serve as a visual reminder of the city's efforts to improve public education.

But behind the fanfare at ribbon cuttings and tours of the new school buildings is a sorry story of mismanagement. That's according to the D.C. Auditor, who in a new report details cost overruns, project delays and a lack of transparency.

The audit, which covers renovations that took place between 2010 and 2013, says that the city did not have enough documentation for millions of dollars in spending, failed to comply with laws, closed schools after money was spent to renovate them, and disbanded an oversight committee of community members.

And that's not all, according to Kathy Patterson, a former member of the D.C. Council and the current auditor.

"But probably more significantly we found some concerns with the way in which the program is overseen and by whom," she says.

Patterson says that the D.C. Department of General Services, which handles construction of public facilities, contracted out the work to a private company that in turn had other subcontractors.

"There’s a lot of different personalities, authorities, roles and one of the challenges is to have a much more streamlined accountability structure so it’s clear who’s in charge and who’s doing what," she says.

High school project budgets, for instance, were supposed to cost less than $255 per square foot. None of the five projects reviewed were within this range. One even cost nearly $350 per square foot.

More than $1 billion was spent on modernizing schools. Patterson says most of that money is borrowed, which means D.C. residents are paying a lot of money in interest.

The Department of General Services acknowledges “the need for immediate corrective action.” There will be a Council hearing on the issue July 8.

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