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Insufficient maintenance and lack of communication afflict school facilities


To much fanfare and celebration, former Principal Pete Cahall and the former District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson cut the ribbon on Wilson’s state-of-the art $115 million renovation in 2011. The building was widely heralded as proof that DC’s long challenged public school system was rebounding. Six years and thousands of students later, the building is starting to show signs of deterioration.

In one particularly egregious example of the school’s disrepair, all four urinals were broken in the third floor mens restroom. Two were missing partitions and one was leaking onto the floor, rendering the whole restroom unusable. Only after weeks of requests, and several emails from high-level officials at Councilmember Mary Cheh’s office, who represents Wilson High School, to the Department of General Services, were the urinals finally fixed and partitions installed.

In another instance, all soap dispensaries were damaged in the girls locker room leaving no form of sanitization for locker room bathroom users.

Although unused in these particular cases, the District of Columbia Government has a system to fix broken items at District-run properties. The Department of General Services (DGS) is responsible for the upkeep of almost 500 locations, including schools, recreation centers, and police stations.

Due to the vast scope and size of properties needing upkeep, DGS relies on the reporting of broken items through a system called Sales Force, which allow principals and staff to enter issues directly into a portal. From there, DGS determines the severity of the broken item and refers it to the appropriate team, such as plumbing, electrical and chemical.

The highest issues of the highest severity are those deemed life-threatening, such as faulty playground equipment, unsecured doors and electrical issues. Those repairs are responded to in less than two hours to ensure the safety of District residents. Other issues, not deemed life-threatening, such as broken urinals and toilets, are aimed to be fixed within a 30-day period. Many basic repairs remain in-house and are handled by the Wilson custodial team.

After conducting an inspection of all the bathrooms and water fountains in Wilson, however, The Beacon found that many are in a state of disrepair.  Approximately 47 percent of soap dispensers were broken or unusable throughout the building. Almost a third of the water fountains did not work. And around 13 percent of sinks were unable to dispense water, constantly running or had broken handles.

Wilson currently has 26 open work orders with DGS, 24 of which are unrelated to bathroom issues, suggesting either that issues are not being reported to DGS, or that they are the kind that can be handled in-house. Any repairs that involve plumbing or electrical work are the responsibility of DGS, while simple repairs, such as broken soap dispensers, are under the Wilson custodial staff’s domain.

There are underlying issues that explain why the dozens of broken items The Beacon surveyed are not being reported to DGS or not being fixed at Wilson.

Principal Kimberly Martin said that the custodial staff at Wilson is simply overworked. They do not have the manpower to handle cleaning classrooms, and hallways, replenishing supplies and all the other various tasks in addition to making in-house repairs.

Martin explained that the night time custodial crew, the crew that is capable of cleaning and making these repairs, are each responsible for “50,000 to 75,000 square feet per night shift. That’s ridiculous.” At previous schools, Martin recalls, custodians had less of the building under their responsibility, giving them time to be more thorough.

Building manager Brandon Hall cited both vandalism and misuse. “Certain individuals, when they use the restroom, they vandalize the equipment…so that puts us behind the eight ball.” By the time the custodians are done dealing with these issues, there is not enough time to fix the damaged items.

Head custodian James Lewis thinks that maintaining school property is a joint effort between students and faculty. “We are trying to get kids to be more responsible for the upkeep of their school,” Lewis said, adding that Wilson is “going to look as well as [students] want it to look or as bad as [students] want it to look.”

Lewis explained that the janitorial staff is currently working with the School Climate Committee to try and make this happen but, “it’s going to be a two to three year process before we start to see tangible results.”

Though Lewis thinks some of the responsibility should lie in the hands of the students to keep their school together, he also thinks there is a deeper issue as to why broken items are not being mended. “It’s not a Wilson problem, it’s a system problem,” he said.

According to Lewis, the school has exhausted the bulk of its bathroom supplies in the eight years he has been at Wilson. Wilson now has to depend on DGS to come in and fix items that could be fixed in-house, which can take 30 days or more. Items, that, with the correct supplies, the custodial crew could normally repair in 48 hours, Lewis said.

“If it’s a broken soap dispenser and they need a whole new one they have some money, not a lot, to replace those things. Something like a soap dispenser should never ever ever be addressed by DGS. That’s not something we should ever send to them, and we don’t” Principal Martin said. Clearly, discrepancies about responsibilities remain.

Lewis also cited the issue of not having enough time. “If you have 20 broken items and two people to fix them, it’s not going to get fixed in one day.” Because of this, the janitorial staff often finds themselves having to prioritize what to fix.

From the time that the item starts malfunctioning to the time it gets fixed (or not), there are many underlying flaws in the repair process. High schools by nature are prone to heavy student use. Every day, hundreds of students use each sink, toilet, urinal, soap dispenser, and water fountain. Naturally, items break, and our current system leaves them in that state for far too long. Martin sums up the issue, “sometimes things fall into that space where everyone is kind of pointing at everybody else and the thing that’s broken never gets fixed or gets worse.” •

PHOTOS BY BENJAMIN KORN AND JACKSON FOX-BLAND

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