Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh delivered a brutal tongue-lashing to D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray Thursday over repeated delays to the renovation of a Northwest elementary school. But Gray disagrees with her analysis.
Hearst Elementary was due to be upgraded this fall, but its modernization was delayed until January 2013. Then, Cheh says, she was told the work would be done in two years, before Gray informed her Wednesday night that no timeline for funding or rebuilding the school even exists.
Hearst is more than 100 percent over-enrolled, built for 110 students but serving 280, and has no auditorium, gymnasium or cafeteria. At least half of classes are taught in trailers, said Cheh, who is "livid."
"So, yet again, the mayor has broken his promise to the students and the community... It's amazing that our youngest students have done as well as they have under these grim conditions. But, really, to be content with leaving students in these circumstances is shameful," Cheh said in an emailed statement Thursday, adding that, "apparently, this is not a budget priority for the mayor."
But that's not the whole story, said Gray's spokesman, who added that Cheh is "confused or something else." According to Pedro Ribeiro, the original Hearst renovation plans did not include significant upgrades, but the mayor learned through talking with parents that the community wanted a more expansive project, including the creation of common space like a gym or cafeteria. Ribeiro says the mayor made it clear to Cheh that the project would take longer because it would be more extensive and deliver more to the school's community.
"It's really easy when you're a ward councilman to pander to your constituents and ask for your school to be renovated ahead of every other school -- not exactly a great sign of leadership," Ribeiro said.
He said the decision to switch gears came some time over the last several months.
Kiara Pesante, Cheh's spokeswoman, replied, "That's nice, but that's not what [the Department of General Services] told the parents at a meeting last night. Maybe the mayor's office and DGS need to get on the same page."
An email to a spokesman for the Department of General Services was not immediately answered Thursday.
Cheh has been agitating for new boundaries, building additions, and even a new middle school for her ward, which has a unique problem in D.C. Public Schools: parents really want to send their kids there. Generally, the schools are in safe areas, employ more highly effective teachers, and boast higher test scores. It's true that the population surrounding your Hearsts and Manns are more affluent than, say, across the Anacostia River. But schools like these are also havens for students through the out-of-boundary lottery: Only about one in five students live in the neighborhoods surrounding Hearst.
"Listening to parents and listening to families is actually a great sign of leadership," Pesante sad. "The fact that the school is in Ward 3 is incidental."
Still, it's an awkward time to have a spoil of riches. DCPS is considering closing 20 schools that are severely under-enrolled, not unrelated to the poor performance of these schools. The city is likely to re-draw school boundaries next year after school closing decisions are made. But for now, it's safe to say that schools unable to attract students are taking top billing.