DC wastes $122 million on new high school: evidence of failures in capital improvements planning and budgeting
DC leaders, alumni to celebrate new Dunbar High School facility" from the Post), all I can think of is how the project is a waste of money.
Photo from NBCWashington.
There is double irony, because it's also an example of the failure of urban renewal. Controversial at the time, the original historic building was torn down in the early 1970s in favor of the construction of an urban renewal crappy building. The controversy made New Yorker Magazine.
But the building, typical of buildings constructed at that time, only lasted about 40 years and was in turn demolished.
Talk about waste. And a focus on the glitter of the new ("Slideshow: The New Dunbar High School" from the City Paper) allows for the avoidance of important questions.
1. DC doesn't have a public process for capital improvements planning and budgeting.
One of the constant drumbeats on this blog is that DC should have a public process for capital improvements planning and budgeting. Virtually every other jurisdiction in the US does. Instead, the CFO office has a unit that deals with it, but except for NGO type projects like the Convention Center, it's mostly done on an annual basis, through the budgeting process.
So there isn't good attention paid to what the money is being spent on, and how well or not it is being spent.
2. DC doesn't capture learning to build more highly functioning facilities as part of the capital improvements process. Mostly the city merely copies what was done before. See the past blog entries "Prototyping and municipal capital improvement programs," and "Another take on municipal capital improvement planning" for more details. For example, with all of the millions of dollars spent on recreation centers--more than $100 million, DC Parks and Recreation doesn't have an indoor track.
3. DC doesn't leverage investment and integrate agency services/co-locate functions.
Compare that to many jurisdictions such as Austin, Texas ("Public assets: public school buildings used for more than school") or Seattle (Neighborhood Service Centers). Arlington County, Virginia does this a lot with their libraries and schools and cultural and other functions. Baltimore County, Maryland has co-located a library and senior wellness center in one building. Etc.
4. DC isn't very good at using public investments in buildings and agency location in ways that strengthen neighborhoods.
See my recent blog entry "Public buildings as vehicles for community improvement" and "The many moving parts of the stadium deal" from the Washington City Paper.
For example, in Portland's Hollywood neighborhood ("A Living Library: Putting housing above a public library, Portland takes another pioneering step toward urban density," Metropolis Magazine), putting a library in as an element of a housing development in a neighborhood commercial district, along with a cafe, added needed elements that strengthened a commercial district.
Contrast that to how the 7th and Rhode Island Avenue NW intersection could have been strengthened with a cafe as the ground floor of the new library there (Watha T. Daniel Library, pictured at right).
The library is cool, but when it's closed, it's closed.
Oh, and the Daniel Library rebuild is another example of tearing down an urban renewal building that was a piece of junk. Again, the building was up for less than 40 years.
5. Most of DC's high schools are severely under-enrolled. So when you have the chance to close a school, this provides the opportunity to strengthen the remaining schools.
Most of DC's public high schools were built for large enrollments. Only two schools have enrollments greater than 1,000 students. Most of the schools are under 800 students, many around 500 students. (The data in this report are old, and show higher enrollments for most schools.) But the schools have strong traditions and alumni networks, so the pressure is always on to keep the school open.
Granted, I am torn between the conclusions of the classic tome in community psychology, Big School, Small School, which advocates for smaller schools which provide more opportunity for students to get involved and be engaged, versus the conclusions of Harvard President James Conant, who in the book Comprehensive High School, advocates for the large school, which has the scale to offer a wide variety of potentially strong programs.
By having too many small high schools, each ends up being mediocre. See the past blog entry "The fourth problem with schools planning in DC: over over capacity, which is further expanded with each new school."
Rebuilding Dunbar High School instead of just tearing it down extends the mediocrity rather than helps to staunch it.
It also represents $122 million that could have been invested in other capital improvements.
6. There is no guarantee that a public capital improvements planning and budgeting process would have better results.
If there were a public process for capital improvements planning, there is no guarantee that there would have been enough power to stop the construction of a new high school when one is not needed, but with the right process, a consideration of overall demand, etc., it would have been easier to stop.