Barras: School closings: Wasted money, empty promises

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

Here's the argument: Closing underpopulated schools yields savings that can be invested in the remaining facilities to enhance the quality of academic programs.

That's what D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, Deputy Mayor for Education De'Shawn Wright and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson have said over the past several months, as they have advocated for school closings.

That's what their predecessors said in 2008, when they closed 23 schools. Then, many folks, including myself, believed them.

But two reports have cast doubt on the accuracy of such assertions.

Earlier this year, an analysis conducted by the 21st Century School Fund, the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute found that school closings in 2008 stripped the DC Public Schools of critical operational funds. Students from closed facilities opted to enroll in charters, taking $5 million in per-pupil funding with them.

Now, in a new report, DC Auditor Yolanda Branche has brought more disappointing news: The District spent a bunch of money in 2008, and there was serious financial mismanagement.

The closures cost $17.7 million -- $8 million more than former Mayor Adrian Fenty originally reported, according to the audit report, a copy of which was obtained by me. If the reduction in value of the school facilities -- some of which remain vacant today -- was included, the price tag would jump to $39.5 million.

Melissa Salmanowitz, DCPS' spokeswoman, told me that since those first closings, "critical strides" have been made working with other city agencies. She said the school system will continue to review the audit and incorporate recommendations "with any future right sizing efforts."

Let's hope past won't be prologue.

During the last round, the Office of Public Education Facilities Management paid contractors $5.8 million, despite their failure to submit supporting documentation with their invoices. It reimbursed Management Alternatives Inc. $112,691 for "non reimbursable" expenses, according to the auditor.

The OPEFM also increased MAI's contract by $550,000 without going through proper procedures, essentially violating District law. And, it paid MAI a $32,307 bonus -- although it and partner Motir Services failed to completely and accurately inventory DCPS' furnishings, fixtures, equipment and educational materials, according to the audit report.

Branche recommended the attorney general take action to recover from MAI the $112,691 and the bonus.

She's dreaming. That won't happen.

In his written response in the audit report, Brian Hanlon, director of the Department of General Services, which now includes the OPEFM, said MAI wasn't "incorrectly reimbursed;" there was a change order. He said the company "satisfied the agency's revised timeline and deliverables;" the bonus was "deemed appropriate." And neither DCPS nor the OPEFM "intended or required an inventory of all assets."

Help us: He's a key steward of the city's assets.

In the audit, Branche countered Hanlon's statement. But last week, she declined to discuss the report with me.

Perhaps her concluding statement from the audit is sufficient: "The closure and consolidation process exposed the resources of the [District] to waste and malfeasance."

Any questions about whether school closings are financial windfalls?

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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