Taxpayers pay millions for over-budgeted school renovations

Costs of modernizing DC schools lead to sticking taxpayers with a monumental price tag. Photo: WUSA9
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Jory Holmes started acting at the age of six. His mother said he has had roles in theater productions like Snow White, Witches, Shrek the Musical, Pippi Long Stocking and even a starring role in the Enemy of the People.

For his parents, Monica and Jeffrey, it was a no brainer to pay $1,200 a month to send their son to the famed Duke Ellington School of the Arts.  

The family lives in Prince George's County, Md., and must pay tuition to send Jory to the D.C. specialty school.

"We got an opportunity to see the video montage of the new building, and we're excited!" said Jeffrey Holmes.  

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And, it is impressive. WUSA9 got a chance to check out the new and improved school in a preview tour weeks before the beginning of the fall semester.   

But, that's when things got messy.

"This project is $100 million over budget," said Ward 4 D.C. Council member Jack Evans.

Ward 3 D.C. Council member, Mary Cheh said, "Here we are being asked to increase it, yet again."

The D.C. Council was slapped with a last minute bill for $4.5 million, extra money they never knew about or planned on paying.  

"The time to draw the line in the sand is right here," said At-Large D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman.

No one was happy, but they were in a bind. If the council didn't approve the additional bill, school wouldn't open on time. So, in the end, all of the council members, except Elissa Silverman, voted to pay the $4.5 million for special flooring, acoustic wall treatments and lighting upgrades.

That's a lot of your tax dollars paying for the school's over costs. But the city council has faced a similar situation in the past. 

RELATEDD.C. Auditor report: May 31, 2016 Duke Ellington School of the Arts Modernization

"It's been the case with all of these schools in our modernization program," said Kathy Patterson, D.C. Auditor and former council member.

Why? Well, let's go back three years ago. The city broke ground to renovate the centuries-old school building that the arts academy moved into back in 1974.

The building was falling apart and didn't have any of the modern classrooms, theaters and studios that you expect in a performing arts academy. The construction budget was set at $71 million.

The original 2012 budget more than doubled through the years by the time the remodeling finished. That's enough money to pay the average annual salaries of nearly 1300 D.C. public school teachers. 

"We knew that it would cost a great deal more than that, but...we never actually saw a budget," said school co-founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz. 

The stakeholders never got a budget during the planning process.   

Cooper Cafritz said, "Once they understand and see what's happening in the building and completely grasp the difference between teaching a class where everyone has to have a tuba, you know, in addition to a book, that they will understand."

Ellington is beautiful and spectacular inside with state of the art studios, theaters and labs. It is a crown jewel. But, it's also considered the poster child of these ballooning construction costs with no end in sight.  

Reports from the agency that examined the budget said there was no accountability, transparency and basic financial management for Duke Ellington and many schools that have been rebuilt.

"We found some issues with documentation, with the invoicing process, but the sort of bigger process issue, I think, really has to do with the how costs are determined," said Patterson.

The D.C. Auditor said the process is backwards.  It begins with an architectural design, followed by a wish list of community wants and ends with the hiring of a contractor.

"Who then comes back and says, 'Okay, for everything you want, here's what it's going to cost.' We don't bid on costs," Patterson said.

That means the city only finds how much the project will cost once the work is well underway.

"It's like a blank check," said Council member Elissa Silverman.

Duke Ellington is not alone. The District has a track record of blowing its budget on school renovations. 

A July 2015 review by the D.C. Auditor found that the total cost to modernize five high schools exceeded their capital improvement budgets.  

RELATED: D.C. Auditor report: July 1, 2015 District's School Modernization Program   

Unsurprisingly, investigators said the agency in charge of these modernizations did a lousy job managing the projects. Too many highly paid people were underperforming. And it has cost taxpayers. 

"It's as though everyone is charge, and therefore, no one is in charge," said D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson.  "We'll probably get close to $200 million on this school."

D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman said, "I do think it's poor planning.  I mean, it's poor budgeting, too! My concern is that when we spend more money on one project, it potentially means less dollars for the next project."

Meanwhile, Jory's parents said the elite school is worth that extra money thought they sympathize with DC residents who are footing the bill. 

His dad Jeffrey said, "I can understand taxpayers being very concerned about those costs or who's watching, who's monitoring because we also have to be wise investors."

D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson added, "The operating philosophy seems to be, you know, for our school modernization, money grows on trees, and we have a lot of trees, and it's just not a lot of discipline."

RELATED: Notable alumni of Duke Ellington School of the Arts