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Julius Becton statement on DC Public Schools,
Testimony before the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, Restructuring and the District of Columbia
March 9, 1998




Dorothy Brizill
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Mr. Chairman, thank you for providing me the opportunity to update you today on the progress of our effort to reform the District of Columbia Public Schools. The title of this hearing – "Lessons Learned" – is appropriate, because this has certainly been a learning process for me and my team, and I am happy to share with you some of those lessons today.

Before I do so, however, I want to take a moment to remind the Subcommittee of why my team was put in place in November 1996 and the challenges we faced when we arrived. As you know, the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority created the Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees and appointed me as Chief Executive Officer of the schools after concluding that "...by virtually every measure of performance, the public school system has failed to provide a quality education for all children and a safe learning environment in which to learn."

The school system was broken in fundamental ways: expectations for student performance were low, accountability was lacking across the system, employees and vendors were not paid on time, and school buildings were plagued by fire code violations. DCPS students performed well below national norms on standardized tests, truancy and dropout rates were unacceptably high, and the public had lost confidence in its schools. These long-standing problems were created over literally decades and they cannot be erased overnight.

Perhaps I should mention that this was probably the first "lesson learned" for me: people are impatient; the public, the City Council, and even the Congress seem to expect almost immediate progress, forgetting how long it took us to get into the hole we're digging out of today. I too have been frustrated by the rate of progress, but I know how far we have had to come.

And we have made progress in the relatively short time this administration has been in place. We have focused our energy on making improvements in three core areas academic achievement, personnel and financial management, and school facilities. I am pleased to report that we have made real progress in all three of these areas. We have learned lessons along the way, and I will talk about those here as well.

In academics, we have taken dramatic steps to begin improving student achievement. We brought on a highly-qualified Chief Academic Officer, came to the District with a clear plan and a proven track- record. Mrs. Arlene Ackerman, our CAO, is here with me today and I'd like to introduce her if I may. Mrs. Ackerman has developed content standards that clearly define what students should know and be able to do in each grade. She is implementing promotion gates, to end the practice of moving students on even if they're not performing at grade level. Because of those gates, we will hold a massive summer school program for students at risk of non-promotion this year. We expect up to 20,000 students (over one-quarter of our entire student population) to participate in the program, which will be required for students in certain test-score ranges who wish to be promoted in the fall.

These are indeed dramatic steps. In fact, few school districts have been willing to go so far. And yet, while parents have been largely supportive of our efforts, some observers have criticized us for failing to move more quickly on the academic front. Once again, I have learned a lesson. Mrs. Ackerman did not join DCPS until last September, after we conducted a nationwide search. When she arrived, she hit the ground running, and she has been running hard ever since. If I could change the past, I would have had Mrs. Ackerman with me when I came on board in November 1996. My friend Paul Vallas, who heads up the reform effort in Chicago on which our effort was modeled, brought 40 people with him when he took over. I had one. Mr. Vallas had the luxury of taking over Chicago Public Schools in July, so that he had two months to prepare for his first academic year. I was appointed after the school year. As a result, we've had to do something akin to rebuilding an airplane in mid-flight. But, we cannot always set the rules of the game. Nevertheless, we are moving forward.

In the areas of personnel and financial management, we have made progress as well. We balanced our budget in FY97, for the first time in five years. We downsized the organization and shifted personnel out of the central office into the schools. We realigned our FY98 budget to better support academic achievement and we broke it down from six huge "responsibility centers" to 70 small ones, to increase accountability for program managers. It has been a slow and difficult process however, because we have had to work with historical data that is unreliable, we are dependent upon often dysfunctional data management systems, and we are tied to the city's payroll system, which is slow and arduous.

I will turn now to facilities. As I have said before, this administration inherited a massive facilities problem, estimated at $2 billion by the General Services Administration. Routine maintenance of our schools had been neglected for years. When we arrived, there was no long-term capital plan in place and school maintenance had been contracted out to a private vendor under an arrangement that we immediately judged to be costly and inefficient.. Fire code violations were plentiful.

We drafted a long-term capital plan in time to meet a congressional deadline. We voted to close 11 schools and have began disposing of surplus properties that had previously been allowed to stand empty for decades. These were not popular decisions, and we have taken considerable criticism for them, but we were put in place to do what's right for children, whether its popular or not, and that is what we're doing.

Finally, we repaired or replaced over 60 roofs in the largest DC school improvement program in recent memory. We didn't patch, as people had done in previous years. In fact, we fixed roofs this summer that had been patched countless times before. We didn't just put on new roofs, we also did the deferred maintenance that was necessary to ensure that those new roofs would last. As the GAO noted in its report, we had to do this work to get long-term warranties on those roofs. Those warranties are important, because they protect the public's investment.

As the GAO said, these were not ordinary roof jobs. many cases, we did major upper-building repairs (to repair damage caused by years of deferred maintenance). In addition, we worked on numerous different types of roofs, some of which are much more expensive that the basic flat roof you usually see in new suburban school districts. We did this work on a compressed time schedule, driven by the Court's orders in the Parents United suit, which meant higher labor costs.

Were the GSA-managed projects completed at a lower cost? Yes. But the GSA-projects were far less complicated, and they were done in a much more reasonable time-frame, which the GAO has noted. In my view, GAO fully understands the difficult circumstances under which we worked and does not believe that we overspent on the project, given those circumstances.

Further validation of our costs is provided by comparing those costs to our government estimates. The actual contract costs for the summer roof replacement effort came in less than five percent above our government estimates, which is well within the range of industry standards. In addition, change orders have totaled less than an additional five percent. In summary, I remain confident in my belief that the District's residents got good value for their dollars.

I would like to touch briefly on the availability of funds, as I know you are interested in this issue. There has been much discussion about when funds were available to the Authority. However, at times the distinction between funds availability at the Authority, and funds availability at the school system, is lost. We loaded the Sallie Mae funds our financial system on the basis of a press release. In fact, in the annual financial report for the city, the auditors identified a material weakness concerning control over transactions involving the Authority and agencies across the city.

Could the process be improved? Certainly. Did we learn from our mistakes? Yes, and we have made changes to the process as a result. For example, we have set up a new document control process to ensure that contract files are well maintained and can be easily audited.

I do hope, however, that we don't lose sight of the tremendous accomplishments that were made last summer, under extremely difficult circumstances. The public got a quality product for its investment. Children in almost one-half of our schools are warmer and drier than they were before we did the work. This is real progress and I am proud of it and proud of the dedicated staff and competent contractors who made it happen.

In closing, I would like to invite you to visit any one our schools soon. We are making dramatic changes underneath the roofs, inside the classrooms and, unfortunately, you may not read about these changes in the newspaper and you certainly won't find them in the pages of an audit. Also, Mrs. Ackerman would like to have the opportunity to meet with you and provide you with more details about her plans for academic improvement. I hope that such a meeting can be arranged.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify. I would be happy to respond to questions at this time.

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