by Adrienne Chu
Area residents have been pushing DC Councilmembers for action on renovating West Elementary Campus. The long-delayed renovation of West, a small DCPS school in 16th Street Heights, has a chance to start much sooner than Mayor Bowser proposed in her 2018 budget. If so, it may be thanks to a torrid of emails and meetings from residents.
West’s building is one of DC’s last "open-plan schools" — a remnant of a 1970s education fad that has fallen out of favor as the building has also fallen into disrepair. Though the school is ranked in the top five most in need of renovation, the money and will to make the renovation happen have continually been just out of reach — until now.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser allocated $82 million in her most recent budget proposal for a full renovation of West, to be completed in 2022. While the school community welcomed a full renovation, the timeline was disappointing. Many families who fought so hard to make the renovation a reality will leave the school before the new building’s completion.
So when Councilmember David Grosso, chair of the DC Council’s education committee, made clear that he wanted to find a way to move up the timeline, new hope rippled through the West community. But support from Grosso and his committee is only one part of the puzzle. An accelerated timeline means the money now set aside for several years in the future needs to be available much sooner.
“I heard the West folks testify [before the education committee], and I support them wholeheartedly,” Grosso said. “But I can’t create money out of thin air. Without a greater investment of capital dollars this year we are unable to move an $82 million project forward and begin it sooner.”
Grosso supports delaying raising the estate tax threshold, which he says would give the District an extra $12 million to use to borrow as much as $162 million in capital funds. Both Mayor Bowser and Council Chair Phil Mendelson have publicly denounced any plan that delays the many tax triggers set to go into effect in 2018.
“If [the mayor] would support [delaying the estate tax change], we would be in a much better position,” Grosso said. “She and Mendelson are key.”
After learning of Grosso’s support, many West parents turned to their councilmember, Ward 4’s Brandon Todd. Emails and calls pushed for Todd to support the accelerated timeline and the funding needed to make it a reality, and to push his colleagues on the council and the mayor to do the same.
Todd did express support for moving up the timeline, but not for the funding Grosso has proposed.
“Until I have clarity on what our borrowing capacity would be, I would not support delaying any of the tax triggers at this time,” Todd said.
Todd questioned whether borrowing that much extra money would put the District over its self-imposed debt limit, but Grosso said emphatically that it would not. Todd also suggested that money could be found elsewhere in the budget, but would not name any specific funding alternatives.
“I’m really just looking at all of our options,” Todd said. “There’s just a lot that is unknown right now.”
ANC 4D06 Commissioner Amy Hemingway, introduced a resolution in support of West at ANC 4D’s May 16 meeting, spoke with Todd to encourage him to be transparent with parents as he goes through the process of meeting with council colleagues and exploring different funding options. (See the resolution ANC 4D passed.)
When asked if he would advocate for West to the mayor, his Ward 4 predecessor and long-time political ally, Todd dismissed the usefulness of such advocacy.
“At this point in the budget process, the decision-making is solely in the hands of the Council, so Mayor Bowser has no additional role to play,” Todd wrote in response to a question from Elizabeth Topping, a potential West parent in the 2017-18 school year. A few days after that statement, Mayor Bowser submitted an amendment to her budget that increased per-pupil education funding for one year, a move Councilmembers Mary Che and Grosso denounced as “Political gamesmanship which lacks transparency and is contrary to the system of checks and balances.”
ANC 4C also passed a resolution supporting the acceleration of renovations at West at their May 10th meeting (see a PDF of the resolution).
The DC Council’s education committee will meet on May 18th to do its markup of the proposed budget. The time for the full council to vote on the budget has not been set but is expected to follow soon after all committees have made their recommendations.
(Ed note 5/16 & 5/17: This article was updated to add the resolutions from ANC 4C and 4D.)