Once Again Flouting DC Law: DGS And School HVAC Reporting

[Ed. Note: The following blog post is by former DCPS teacher Kathleen Coughlin, who here has outlined how the DC Department of General Services (DGS) has not been following DC law for timely and accurate reporting of HVAC repairs and inspections in DCPS schools for the better part of a year. In June, Coughlin wrote about how other DC agencies–DCPS, LEAs, and the DC department of health–have flouted the law regarding covid reporting in our schools. Just a few days ago, on July 12, 2022, DCPS provided through Coughlin’s FOIA request this document with information on school quarantines from February 28 through May 13, 2022. All the data in that document was required to be publicly posted—and never was until now. So read on for the extent–and safety implications–of DGS not publicly reporting HVAC problems and inspections in DCPS.]

By Kathleen Coughlin

Since November 2021, the DC Department of General Services (DGS) has mismanaged its responsibilities under the Protecting Our Children Emergency Amendment Act of 2021 (B24-0403) and the Protecting Our Children Temporary Amendment Act of 2021 (B24-0413) regarding public reporting of open work orders for, and inspections of, HVAC systems in DCPS schools.

Those reporting requirements were imposed on DGS because fully functioning HVAC is critical to maintaining a healthy working environment for students and school staff in the airborne pandemic we’re experiencing. With 30% of DCPS schools having HVAC issues at the start of the just-completed 2021-2022 school year, and with many problems continuing for months, tens of thousands of DCPS students and teachers have faced serious heating, cooling, and ventilation problems in their school buildings.

Although constituents and the DC council called repeatedly for DGS to comply with the law so the public had good information to make public health decisions, DGS delayed publishing any public dashboard with school HVAC maintenance data by about 4 months past its statutory deadline.

And even once DGS created that public dashboard, the agency failed to publicize its existence or to correct a number of known errors and inconsistencies in its reporting. On top of that, DGS has failed to produce in a timely manner documents around that data that I requested via FOIA in the dashboard’s absence.

The impact of such noncompliance with the law cannot be overstated:

Lack of trustworthy data has risked the health of thousands of DCPS staff and students, many of whom were forced to work this past school year in classrooms at unreasonable and dangerous temperatures despite repeated promises of relief. Because overly hot or cold rooms are not conducive to learning, all school stakeholders need to know about the conditions they or their children will experience there–and whether there’s any way to prepare for them. Poorly ventilated rooms also increase the risk of covid transmission, so ventilation-related maintenance requests need to be closely monitored and quickly addressed to mitigate covid spread.

Beyond endangering the health and safety of students and teachers, repeatedly refusing to publish and maintain a publicly accessible, timely, and accurate HVAC dashboard as required by law undermines the legislative authority of the DC council and deprives the public of information to which we are entitled.

(Not surprisingly, for all of these reasons the DC council is currently considering emergency legislation to require additional reporting on safety preparation and contingency plans for schools before the upcoming 22-23 school year. But this bill only requires these updates on air quality, safety systems, and immunization compliance to be submitted to the DC council, not reported to the general public.)

DGS’s School HVAC Obligations

On October 5, 2021, the DC council unanimously passed B24-0403, Protecting Our Children Emergency Amendment Act of 2021. On October 26, the law was enacted without Mayor Bowser’s signature. As a result, several requirements went into effect for DGS:

Sec. 105. COVID-19 infection and mitigation reporting requirements.
(b) On or before November 1, 2021, and every 2 weeks thereafter, the Department of General Services (“DGS”) shall transmit to Council and post on the DGS website:
(1) A list of open work orders for HVAC units serving school facilities, including the status of any repairs and anticipated repair dates; and
(2) The date of the most recent inspection of HVAC units, by school.

This law expired on January 24, 2022. However, the council reinstated DGS’s HVAC reporting requirements via a new law, B24-0413, the Protecting Our Children Temporary Amendment Act of 2021, which was enacted without the mayor’s signature on December 14, 2021, went into effect on February 18, 2022, and will expire on October 1, 2022.

These legislative requirements come after years of advocates calling for increased transparency in DGS’s operations and for improved conditions in DCPS school buildings, many of which still haven’t received full modernizations. Those efforts, coupled with a growing understanding of the airborne transmission of covid, helped bring about a clarion call for DGS transparency, which was eventually encoded in that legislation.

In June 2020, the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) Reopen DC Taskforce published a report outlining barriers to safe in-person instruction; requirements for effective online instruction; and outstanding questions regarding pandemic safety in DCPS. The task force identified a number of needed improvements in school facilities, stating that “while the District has made substantial investments in recent years in the modernization of our schools, many school buildings remain outdated, classrooms take place in modular units in several communities, and many schools have poor, ill-functioning air circulation systems.” The report also included a survey of WTU members, almost 80% of whom said they did not think DCPS was prepared to ensure student and staff safety with in-person instruction.

The WTU report makes clear that even at that early stage in the pandemic, there was broad recognition of the importance of building maintenance, air quality, and increased ventilation to mitigate covid. To assuage some of the public’s concerns, DGS director Keith Anderson stated in July 2020 that DGS was “working to complete summer maintenance, small capital and modernization projects prior to August 31 to ensure all school facilities have fully functional HVAC systems for the upcoming school year.” After WTU advocacy and consideration of the growing number of covid infections, Mayor Bowser announced on July 30, 2020 that DCPS would begin the 2020-21 school year entirely online.

In November 2020, DGS collaborated with DCPS to publish a memo explaining preparations for a return to in-person instruction. These preparations included $24 million toward updates (aligned with expert guidance) to DCPS HVAC systems.

By the spring semester of the 2020-21 school year, some DCPS classes had returned to in-person instruction. Despite DC’s hefty investment in air quality improvements, parents and teachers at some of those schools called publicly for assistance with longstanding HVAC problems that continued to affect many in-person classrooms. in a familiar refrain, DGS director Anderson assured parents and teachers at one school that DGS would ensure they had “a properly functioning HVAC system before students and staff return to school in the fall [of SY21-22].”

Shortly before SY21-22 began, on August 18, 2021 leaders from DCPS and the WTU signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) regarding school health and safety expectations for the 2021-22 school year. Section 3 of the MOA laid out guidelines for school ventilation, which included air quality monitoring and reports (currently a month behind), the installation of MERV-13 and HEPA filters, and an assurance that the HVAC systems within schools were serviced and operating properly. 

Unfortunately, in spite of earlier assertions from DGS and DCPS, some schools with HVAC issues in school year 20-21 still did not have fixes to their HVAC systems by the end of summer 2021.

As a result of such broken promises and lagging repairs in the face of an intractable pandemic, there were public calls for DCPS and DGS to increase transparency and accountability in dealing with maintenance and work orders. For example, on September 26, 2021, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4B unanimously adopted Resolution #4B-21-0904, calling for DGS to provide an online public dashboard to track the status of work orders in school facilities. This resolution discussed known facilities issues within DCPS; the urgent need for high-quality facilities and HVAC systems in light of the ongoing pandemic; and the lack of transparency and accountability for resolving maintenance requests in a timely manner.

Given the extent of unaddressed problems before the beginning of this past school year, it is not surprising that many schools had repeated issues with their HVAC systems throughout SY21-22. For instance, on June 1, 2022, Delia Goncalves reported extreme heat in 13 DCPS schools and more than 100 schools with outstanding maintenance requests related to their cooling systems.

Unshared Dashboards, Inaccessible Data

Despite the legal requirement starting on November 1, 2021 to publish DCPS HVAC inspections and work orders, DGS provided no publicly accessible information that fulfilled the data reporting requirements in Sec.105(b) of bills B24-0403 and B24-0413 all the way through March 1, 2022.

In an attempt to access that data, I submitted a FOIA request for it (2022-FOIA-02813) on January 22, 2022—12 weeks after DGS was required to make it available.

On February 11, I received an email from DGS with an attached list of open work orders in DCPS buildings. The same email also invoked a 10-business day extension for providing the most recent school HVAC inspections. The reason given for the extension was so the agency could “properly process the request for reasons due to the need to search for, collect, and examine a voluminous amount of records.”

On March 1 (the 11th business day after the extension was invoked), I received an email stating that DGS was “still searching” for the most recent inspections of HVAC units and that I would receive that information “if” (not when) it was found.

The next day, March 2, the DC council held its annual performance oversight hearing for DGS, during which a “beta” version of a dashboard with information on school HVAC work orders and recent HVAC service dates was mentioned. DGS director Keith Anderson expressed the intention for DGS to update the dashboard at least every 2 weeks. Director Anderson also praised DGS’s work, saying in his testimony that the dashboard “provides parents and school communities with a new level of transparency, a clear understanding of each school’s HVAC system, and the ability to track the agency’s work order progress.” (In the hearing video, the dashboard is first mentioned at the 3 hour 45 minute mark, then discussed more at the 3 hour 49 minute mark as well as in the Q&A around the 4 hour 1 minute mark.)

But at no time during the March 2 hearing did DGS show the public what that dashboard looked like or where it was located.

Slide explaining the HVAC dashboard, visible starting around the 3 hour 49 minute mark in the March 2 DGS oversight hearing.

That said, a week before that hearing, on February 23, DGS submitted pre-hearing responses to council questions that included a link to a public dashboard page on their website. That page contained another link to view the dashboard itself. In its pre-hearing responses, DGS claimed that the dashboard shared on that page complied with the law’s requirements.  

One important point that thoroughly undermines the dashboard’s goal of “transparency”: At no time during the spring 2022 oversight season did DGS post information or links for their public-facing HVAC dashboard on social media—a departure from their practice with other new initiatives, which normally garner at least a few posts on each platform to raise awareness with and/or request feedback from the public.

Further confusing matters, the only link to the dashboard that was shared widely around the March 2 oversight hearing was a link to a “draft” DGS dashboard that was posted on Twitter by a council staffer that afternoon to inform people about the update from the hearing. This version of the dashboard, housed on Tableau Public, has an original publication date of February 17 and appears not to have been updated since around that time. For a while, I was under the impression this was the official version of the dashboard since DGS’s lack of publicity around it didn’t give people any reason to think otherwise.

Even after the dashboard(s) came into existence, the public’s ability to access the most up-to-date HVAC data continued to be compromised due to DGS’s failure to effectively raise awareness about the dashboards; the unclarified existence of multiple versions of the dashboard; and the fact that the only links to the “correct” dashboard publicly available were on a sub-page of DGS’s website or buried in their nearly 4,000-page pre-hearing documentation (which itself is buried on the council’s website).

Playing With FOIA

While the scarcity of publicly accessible information originally led to my filing of a FOIA request with DGS for HVAC maintenance and repair data, the eventual release of that information at the performance oversight hearing, in turn, pointed to potential mishandling of FOIA requests.

Consider that by March 7, when I eventually submitted a FOIA appeal, I had received no further documents about HVAC inspections from DGS to complete my request.

But the Tableau Public version of the HVAC dashboard that the staffer had tweeted on March 2 had been published on February 17, and the version in the pre-hearing responses had been submitted to council on February 23.

Both dates are at least a week before I was told (on March 1) that DGS was “still searching” for HVAC inspection data that it had recently used to create both versions of the HVAC dashboards! If DGS employees had been actively using that data on several projects at the time, how could it not have been found?

That timeline thus suggests that DGS failed to make reasonable efforts to search for the records I requested via FOIA and/or withheld or delayed requested documents.

On March 8, the day after I filed my FOIA appeal, the mayor’s office of legal counsel requested DGS respond to my appeal in the next 5 business days (i.e., by March 15). 

The very next day, on March 9, DGS sent me an email with HVAC inspection data for some (but not all) schools as well as a link to an HVAC dashboard. This appeared to be the version of the dashboard whose link had been buried in DGS’s pre-hearing responses. The data on this dashboard has not been updated in a long time, if ever. (There is no timestamp to indicate when it was last updated–but the work orders are out of date.) A few minutes after I received that email, the status of my FOIA request was changed to “closed.”

Screenshot of DGS HVAC dashboard emailed to me on March 9.

Eventually, on March 22, 10 business days after the mayor’s office of legal counsel requested a reply from DGS (and 5 business days after DGS’s deadline for responding), I was copied on DGS’s response to my appeal. It claimed the agency had fulfilled its obligations under FOIA and adequately searched for the requested records. The reply noted that multiple requests and reminders for the documents had been sent from the DGS FOIA officer to the FOIA Liaison for the Facilities Management Division (FMD)—and that the requests even had to be sent to DGS’s deputy general counsel as well as the director’s office before FMD provided the inspection documents. The reply noted that the documents were finally provided by FMD on March 3, even though I did not receive them until March 9. There was no explanation for this gap.

Currently, my appeal is still marked as “processing” in DC’s online FOIA portal, and the mayor’s office of legal counsel has not made a determination—despite the fact that under D.C. Code §2-537(a) the office is required to make a ruling within 10 business days of the submission of a FOIA appeal. After FOIA response time limits were paused for several months in 2020, the mayor’s office of legal counsel had fallen significantly behind in processing. As a result, appeals like mine are experiencing extended delays. In its own 2022 performance oversight pre-hearing responses, for example, the mayor’s office of legal counsel had more than 300 outstanding appeals.

Another Dashboard, Another Disappointment

On March 31, 2022, the DC council committee on government operations and facilities held DGS’s budget oversight hearing, with a committee report issued on April 20, 2022. The report identified a need for greater community engagement from DGS and noted DGS’s noncompliance with the Protecting Our Children Emergency Amendment Act and refusal to publicly post HVAC work order information when the requirement went into effect. The report called this refusal “unlawful and absolutely unacceptable” and lamented the way it restricted the ability of citizens to access meaningful and timely information.

Interestingly, during the budget hearing on March 31, DGS director Anderson contradicted his previous statements (during the performance oversight hearing on March 2 and in the pre-hearing responses to council questions) and claimed that DGS could not commit to expanding its dashboard without further funds. The committee report cast doubt on this claim because DGS already possesses data on other types of work orders in its internal database and also possesses the technology needed to transition that data to a public-facing site.

The council report ultimately recommended that DGS expand its dashboard in several ways, by including all DCPS work orders (not just HVAC) by the end of FY2022 and work orders for facilities under the DC department of parks and recreation (DPR) by the end of FY2023. The committee also clarified what information DGS is required to share about each of the work orders (much of which is not in the current version of the dashboard). That proposal is now being codified in Subtitle C of B24-0714 the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget Support Act of 2022, which was approved unanimously by the council and is pending mayoral review (due July 25).

Meanwhile, around this time, DGS changed its dashboard again.

In addition to the two earlier versions of the dashboard (i.e., the one tweeted out on March 2 by a council staffer and the one that was on the DGS HVAC webpage for a time, which was shared in pre-hearing responses and also sent to me on March 9 in response to my FOIA request), I eventually stumbled across yet another version of the HVAC dashboard, after seeing that DGS replaced the hyperlink on their HVAC web page with this newest version of the dashboard. This change occurred sometime between March 9 (when DGS finally responded to my FOIA request) and April 12 (the earliest record I could find of this version).

Yet, despite all those changes, this current version of DGS’s HVAC dashboard still falls short of its goal of, as DGS Director Anderson said during the performance oversight hearing, creating “something very useful and meaningful to the parents in our DCPS communities as well as staff” and “bringing that transparency that we’ve talked about.”

It also falls short of the law’s requirements in several ways. First, it was posted publicly several months after it was supposed to be, with little (if any) effort to raise public awareness about its existence.

Second, there are noted issues with the accuracy of the dashboard’s data. For the past couple months, the timestamp at the top of this version of the dashboard has updated most days between 10 am and 1 pm. Although the legislation does not require the data to be updated daily, the information in the dashboard should be correct as of the specified date. But this has not been the case.

For example, the HVAC work order list has not always included documented issues. See here and here for two examples of missing documentation just in June 2022. (Ironically, the one tweet includes a June 16, 2022 reply from DGS, one of only two times I have seen the agency acknowledge on social media the existence of its HVAC dashboard.)

Third, despite the dashboard’s nearly daily updates, the vast majority of work orders have estimated completion dates in the past or are marked “pending assessment” with no date. In fact, as of the update on July 16 at 10 am, only 9 of the 606 open work orders for school buildings (1.5%) had estimated completion dates in the future. (Note: For my analysis, I excluded work orders for buildings not currently serving as DCPS schools, like the DCPS warehouse. If I had included them, it would not improve the numbers.)

Screenshot of work orders listed on the current HVAC dashboard, notably without future estimated completion dates.

But B24-0413 requires the dashboard to include “the status of any repairs and anticipated repair dates.” Since maintenance requests are not all listed on the dashboard and the vast majority do not have accurate estimated completion dates, DGS’s dashboard does not comply with that section of the law.

The current dashboard also has problems regarding the most recent inspections of HVAC systems. The HVAC Assets tab of the dashboard purports to share the most recent HVAC inspections displayed in the form of a map of schools alongside a list of updates. But the list itself is incomplete and includes only 35 school buildings, which is about 30% of those within the DCPS system, with no apparent reason as to why those were included but others weren’t.

I sought clarification about some of these discrepancies with little success. Eventually, after prompting from the office of council chair Phil Mendelson, a DGS representative in legislative affairs emailed me back on June 7. He said that although not all HVAC assets appeared on the list, information on all schools should be viewable in the map.

In my reply to him later that day, I asked why the list displays only partial data—and why some schools appear in both the list and the map and others just on the map. I also pointed out that the schools appearing on both the map and the list did not display the same dates for their most recent HVAC inspections. For example, on the list Malcolm X Elementary School showed 5/3/2022 as its most recent HVAC inspection date, while the map reported inspections on October 28, November 10, November 12, and November 28, 2021. Similarly, on the list Luke C. Moore High School’s most recent inspection was on 4/19/2022, but the map displayed dates only in November 2021.

Early July 2022 screenshots showing differing inspection dates between the map and list.

In short, if the most recent HVAC inspection list regularly displays different (and possibly more up-to-date) information than the map, then it is not acceptable to have stakeholders rely solely on the data in the map for information regarding the about 70% of DCPS schools that are not shown on the list. Additionally, even if the data in both places did align, stakeholders have no obvious way of knowing to check the map for the information missing from the list of inspections.

I received no substantive response to my questions and comments. Instead, the DGS representative replied that he would send my comments “to [DGS’s] Dashboard team, so they can consider how to best improve the experience” for dashboard users.

Currently, the errors I pointed out have not been corrected, meaning that DGS’s dashboard does not adequately fulfill the law’s requirement to display “the date of the most recent inspection of HVAC units, by school.” In fact, as of the update on July 14, the inspection map now displays no usable data at all and instead each school displays the following error:

Recent (July 14, 2022) screenshots of DGS’s HVAC inspection map for Malcolm X Elementary School & Luke C. Moore High School.

So, here’s where we stand on B24-0413:

Earlier this month, DGS added a link to the top of the dashboard that redirects to a feedback form where you can give input regarding the quality of the dashboard and suggestions for improvements, if you feel inclined to share your opinion with DGS.

As with other agencies flouting the law regarding covid reporting in our schools, I have reported these problems multiple times to DGS itself and elevated the issue to the DC inspector general. Because the inspector general does not provide updates on investigations, I can only hope that we will see the results of an investigation at some point.

One thought on “Once Again Flouting DC Law: DGS And School HVAC Reporting

  1. The Rule of Law in DC is pretty elastic–the Council makes them, mostly in response to the public, then the mayor, whose job is to execute them, picks and chooses which ones he or she will follow and this article about how the mayor has failed to lead DGS so that it hasn’t ever really served the facilities needs of DCPS is the perfect example. DGS was formed in 2012, Bowser came into office in 2015. It has not improved under her two term watch but only gotten worse. It shows what she really thinks of DCPS–that failed and second rate everything including lead in the water, wholly inadequate computer systems to support on-line learning, constant confusion about covid-management and little to no information to the public about any of it except what she thinks makes her look good is ok for DC’s kids and good enough governing in her mind for her to want a third term. If she has not corrected the problems in DGS in eight years, why would anyone expect her to in another four? DCPS is clearly not her priority or she would have been seeing to it that all the agencies that DCPS depends on for its operations (and student/personnel safety, security and health) are always in ship shape from the beginning of her first term.
    Many thanks to the author for such a comprehensive and clearly written write-up!

    Liked by 1 person

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