The Story Of DGS In Our Schools: Crumbling Infrastructure, Unsafe Conditions, & Work Order Hell

For more than 5 hours on February 28, public witnesses at the DGS performance oversight hearing outlined a variety of physical problems in DCPS schools, which DGS is charged with maintaining.

To wit:

Nonworking toilets
Broken elevators, preventing any handicap access
Nonworking HVAC
Faulty or missing locks on class and other doors
DCPS deferring to DGS on maintenance decisions
Students missing school as a result of facility issues
Delays in basic but urgent repairs
Staff out of the loop on work orders
Intimidation of staff for reporting problems
Warranties that are too short
No or limited routine maintenance
Inequity of modernizations and PACE Act recalculations
Ongoing problems in new buildings and newly renovated facilities
High costs of initial builds
Water shutoffs
Gas leaks
Lead on playground surfaces
Inferior playground work in wards 7 & 8

Given that laundry list of neglectful facility oversight by DGS (and more, as recounted here), you’d probably never guess that the largest percentage of properties under DGS purview is actually DCPS (per question 82, p. 35, on DGS’s written responses to council questions).

Days later, on March 2, the council held its government witness oversight hearing for DGS. It was about the same length as the one with public witnesses—and again featured a fraction of the council (in this case, Janeese Lewis George, Matt Frumin, Vincent Gray, and Zachary Parker).

Here is some written public testimony that gets to many of the issues in an agency that currently has more than 1000 unfulfilled work orders in DCPS schools:

–A dizzying accounting of work orders at just three DCPS schools

–The social, racial, and educational ramifications of unrepaired DCPS buildings

–The central role of custodians and how far DCPS falls short. (Related: See the very cool map of whether your DCPS school has enough custodians.)

Testimony for both DGS oversight hearings is available at the dropbox here, which is privately maintained (by way of this website) by CM Lewis George, who chairs the council committee with DGS oversight (on facilities and family services).  

Lewis George in fact did an heroic job of trying to follow through with DGS officials around many of the items on that laundry list above—but it is patently not enough.

For instance, despite many concerns about how work orders are handled (and delayed and not prioritized), there was little clarity about improvements going forward, especially as DGS and DCPS appear to cooperate in evading responsibility (see the 3/2/23 hearing video, starting from the 1 hour, 13 minute mark).

This was not entirely surprising:

Many of the questions the council asked DGS to provide written responses for ahead of the hearing were about work delays—and many were not answered. In fact, answers to questions about timeliness of work orders (p. 56, question 127) and how DGS handles them (question 130 and p. 57ff) were not explicit in saying that anyone has solved the problems at hand. Instead, on p. 58, in answer to question 133, DGS promised a “relaunch” of its public dashboard in “mid 2023.”

If all of this sounds disturbingly familiar, it may be because “DGS” and “dashboards” are a fraught topic that even the DC auditor has had something to say about. Not to mention that DGS failures with respect to

–ensuring playground and school safety;

–providing sufficient and timely repairs for dangerous school conditions, like those right now at Whittier; and

–providing even basic answers around a flood that closed a DCPS building for an entire school year

are longstanding and commonplace, as are delayed and mismanaged work orders.

In addition to those concerns, council members repeatedly raised issues at the 3/2/23 government witness hearing around the quality of work in our schools and the fact of warranties for only 1 year for nearly everything from entire modernizations to HVAC systems. Of the latter, Keith Anderson, director of DGS, said at the 4 hour, 38 minute mark that 1 year warranties are normal if you buy a fridge from Home Depot, implying it’s also normal for DCPS, because there is no other option.

(Nothing like a DC public servant saying that DC being captured by private industry is the way it has to be.)

To her credit, Lewis George asked about negotiating longer warranties (you know, since DCPS is a scale operation, as opposed to your once a decade or so refrigerator purchase).

Anderson responded . . . that they’ve been researching it.

And thus it went, for hours. (And now will apparently keep going in many new directions, as DGS head Keith Anderson has been expeditiously appointed as the mayor’s new chief of staff.) [CORRECTION, 3/19/23, thanks to an alert reader: Anderson has been appointed to be interim deputy mayor for planning and economic development]

To be sure, DGS officials offered insights, such as the challenge of maintenance on parts and equipment well beyond their useful lives (hello, perpetually unrenovated DCPS schools with old infrastructure!).

At the 2 hour, 53 minute, 57 second mark of the 3/2 hearing, Zachary Parker asked about having DCPS personnel sign off on work orders, to show they were done, while DGS officials pointed out that sometimes DCPS personnel will not know whether a job is done well or properly. (Since the hearing, Lewis George re-introduced legislation to require DCPS school personnel to sign off on completion of all work orders.)

It also became apparent that despite mayoral fanfare of Fletcher-Johnson’s redevelopment, the building has simply sat empty. (No word from DGS on why or how–naturally.)

In truth, smoke and mirrors are the real story here—as they have been for many years with DGS’s stewardship of DCPS schools, which council oversight has almost never had any effect on.

Take the council’s question 182 on p. 79: “As of January 2023, do all interior and exterior doors lock properly in DCPS buildings?”

Here’s the written answer DGS provided:

“As of January 2023, there remains outstanding lock and door issues in DCPS buildings.”

How many door and lock issues, where, and of what magnitude remains unsaid AND unasked. In fact, almost 5 YEARS ago, on April 19, 2018, at large council member Robert White had an eerily similar exchange with DCPS officials around school locks (see the video at 2:43:44):

Robert White: On the school locks, it seems like a basic and important issue. Deputy Chancellor Gaal, I didn’t hear: the number of schools that don’t have the ability to lock their doors?

Michael Gaal: It’s 50.

White: Fifty. OK. And the cost for that is $15 million?

Gaal: That’s correct, that’s our initial estimate.

White: Are these diamond-encrusted locks?

Gaal: I don’t have a comment on that. But I see your point.

White: It doesn’t make sense to me. . . . Even if every door in the schools had no ability to lock, it would not cost $15 million. I would ask that you go back to DGS or whoever gave you this and get a better understanding of that cost. Alternatively, I guarantee if I tap out a message on Facebook right now we can get this done for $1 million in a month.

Then-interim DCPS chancellor Amanda Alexander promised to get Robert White more details. Whether he ever received them (or appealed to Facebook for a solution) remains unclear.

Indeed, the only thing clear after all these YEARS is that there is apparently no end to problems with DGS’s stewardship of DCPS buildings despite all the hearings and oversight provided by the council.

Personally, listening to Whittier parents and reading testimony about that old and unrenovated school’s woes—roof leaks, sewage leaks, HVAC failures—brought back horrid memories of Watkins before its renovation. The outrage here is not merely in unacceptable conditions students and staff currently endure (see here and here for a few examples) but also in the fact that Whittier’s issues have been known for YEARS (see here), while any substantive work is (still) years away . . .

as it is for other DCPS schools right now even as DC has committed more than $100 MILLION to capital expansions in the only ward in which ALL DCPS schools have been renovated.

So look in the mirror, DC:

It’s 2023, and we STILL have unacceptable physical conditions in many of our schools, inequitable treatment of school facilities across our city, and yet another hearing hashing out topics that have been discussed for years without discernible change, as if inappropriate stewardship by DGS and many DC leaders didn’t happen before; isn’t happening now; and won’t happen again.

Incredibly, such abysmal stewardship even extends to former DCPS schools.

For instance, at the 4 hour, 50 minute, 50 second mark, Lewis George asked about charters not paying rent for the former DCPS schools they occupy. A DGS official responded that the beginning of the charter leases may have a “dollar for dollar abatement” of rent to cover charter construction and renovation costs, while the “burn off” happens later in the lease term, which can be anywhere from 25-50 years.

But what that DGS official did not say is how (or even if) DGS calculates the return on investment (ROI) for DC in those leases. As far as I know, no one in DC is tracking what charters actually spend on capital upgrades for those former DCPS spaces versus what they say they spend. Nor is anyone in DC tracking how charters use their per pupil facilities fees, amounting to more than $100 million annually—possibly because DC charters are under no obligation to report this or to use the money for facilities.

This in turn goes to how DGS formulates lease terms. If, say, a charter school says ahead of signing the lease that it will spend $20 million on a renovation of a former DCPS school, DGS will grant it a $20 million rent abatement, which amounts to 20 years of no rent. But without anyone in DC tracking to see if, after the renovation is complete, that charter school did in fact spend $20 million, the private operators of that publicly funded entity may actually be making money from the deal—as opposed to DC taxpayers.

Then, there’s also the silence about what happens if the charter school goes out of business, which in DC is a fairly frequent occurrence.

And it is unclear whether anyone in DC has examined whether long leases are in fact a direct benefit to the DC public and not just the private groups operating the schools, for which a lease amounting to most of a century may constitute a (literal) blind trust, without any ability of the council to exercise oversight.

Which in fact may be the point, as DGS’s actions around charter leases of former DCPS schools appear to favor private entities at every turn while skirting laws and public oversight:

–DGS signed over leases to two former DCPS schools for most of this century without much of a peep to anyone in the public–and with substantial council assist.

–DGS signed over the lease to the Old Hardy school literally in the dead of night to a private school, despite a stated need for more space for Ward 3 students. Instead, plans are underway to build a public school *next to* the old public school (apparently in DC, we have money AND entire communities to BURN).

–The offer by DGS to charters of the Ferebee-Hope school in Ward 8 appeared to have been fast-tracked beyond public notice AND specifically for one charter school, while community members have been repeatedly left out of the loop on its development by DGS and other DC entities.

–The offer by DGS of the former DCPS school Wilkinson was completely outside the law governing such offers of former DCPS schools—and hinged on another former DCPS school building, Birney, which has through DGS agreement provided large amounts of public cash for a wealthy private entity (the Charter School Incubator Initiative), which itself has been enabled by DC leaders by way of public funding.

–The charter school Eagle Academy not only was awarded by DGS a 75-year lease for the old McGogney school, with 25 years free of rent, but despite promises around public access to its pool and a health clinic, neither has happened. Naturally, there’s no word from DGS on the ROI to DC taxpayers.

–The former DCPS school Kenilworth was offered by DCPS and charter board personnel in private conversations to one charter school—completely against the law and apparently with the tacit support of DGS.

–The former DCPS school Taft has been a money maker for the private entities that lease it—but whether it makes money for DC under DGS’s terms remains an open question (which, as that link immediately above shows, DGS itself refuses to answer).

So, expect more obfuscation and disrespect for the public in the wake of the mayor’s release of the budget next week on March 22—not to mention at upcoming budget hearings for DGS and education agencies.

Speaking of which:

Sign up to testify for hearings for education agencies and sign up here to testify at the DGS hearing. Note that, per LeKisha Jordan in the office of council chair Phil Mendelson, budget questions for education agencies will go out ahead of the budget hearings (unlike last year) and will be posted here once received. Materials for DGS hearings is (and will be) posted here.

One thought on “The Story Of DGS In Our Schools: Crumbling Infrastructure, Unsafe Conditions, & Work Order Hell

  1. This–this comprehensive look and documentation of the same wrongs over a period of years in this post– is the kind of work that I expect the Council to have a permanent committee on education to do so that it can make better laws than CM Lewis George’s attempt to address just one symptom of a deeper problem, DCPS signing off that a repair has been made. It’s my understanding that the chancellor has both the authority and the responsibility to write the rules for things of that nature rather than the Council having to pass a law for it. Isn’t that what the provision in PERRA that says “Promulgate and implement rules and regulations necessary and appropriate to accomplish his or her duties and functions..” means? That it’s on the chancellor to take care things like signing off on repairs, not the Council’s job to write a law for it?
    Are things getting worse under mayor control, or is it just me?


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