On January 21, DC Public Schools (DCPS) announced its decision on where Murch students would be located during the renovation and expansion of the school. The plan is to relocate the school to a trailer complex to be built on the grounds of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) for one year (the 2016-2017 school year). The school would then move back onsite for the 2017-2018 school year, throughout the remainder of the construction.
The option of moving the school twice during the construction was first presented to the School Improvement Team (SIT) in an email on January 20, with slightly more detail given during a conference call mid-day on January 21. DCPS staff told SIT members that remaining at UDC for the full two years was the preferred option, but that a proposal to split the time was being discussed because UDC might not allow access to their space for the full two years. UDC is in the process of negotiating an agreement with a private consortium of soccer clubs and schools (“Field LLC”) to build turf fields on the site for the benefit of UDC’s athletic teams and those private teams financing the field construction. On January 21, UDC told DCPS that it plans to move forward with its plans for turfing the field. Murch would be given access for only one year. Therefore, DCPS chose the most newly created option of splitting time between UDC and onsite.
When presented with this information, SIT members advised DCPS and DGS that this new proposal had significant flaws. The SIT was dismayed with the last-minute nature of the plan and the lack of detail to the plan. Some of the concerns expressed by the SIT were:
- Swinging on site the second year would be very similar to swinging on site for the full two years – DCPS and DGS say the goal would be to have renovation of the original building complete in the first year for some students to move into, with the exception of the gym/multipurpose room, which would not renovated until the summer of 2018. Only the original building would be accessible after year one, not the cafeteria and the new gym or any of the other new space. Under the plan for the renovated building, there will be more administrative space and fewer classrooms than in the original space. Swinging onsite in year two would still require use of the Kaufman Wing and all trailers currently on the site, plus additional trailers to accommodate at least two other classes and the media center. The Kaufman building and the 5th grade trailers presumably would stay in place, but all other trailers would need to be reconstructed on the current hill area. Due to the last-minute nature of this proposal, DCPS and DGS could not provide any information on the potential placement of those additional trailers.
- Despite numerous requests they have not come up with any solutions for parking and traffic safety – They could not provide any information on how vehicular and pedestrian traffic patterns around and through the site would work. They did not share any information on traffic studies. They did say that it is likely that the parking area on the Murch side of Davenport Street would be fenced off for staging and all pickup and drop off would occur on Ellicott Street. This would further limit the area where teachers can park, not account for the increased parking from construction workers, and would funnel at least twice the amount of traffic onto an already overcrowded Ellicott Street.
- The limitations of play space at both sites in this plan – The play space at UDC in year one would be an open field with severe drainage issues that UDC and others have deemed unusable in the past. Any upgrades to that space would come from the project budget. It also is not clear whether Murch would have full access to that field or share it with UDC teams. In year two, the play space would be limited onsite because more than half the school still would be located in trailers. The National Park Service (NPS) has agreed to some use of the space across Reno Road from the school (bordering Davenport Street), however, no agreement on what that space might look like has been reached. DCPS and DGS stated that one benefit of this plan was that they would have another year to work out playspace with NPS.
- The requirement for multiple, complex, and expensive moves – This plan would require moving the entire school twice and more than half the school a third time. The time and logistics involved in packing the entire school and setting it back up are extensive and historically been disruptive for schools, taking significant time and focus from education. Each move is also likely to be done at the last minute. Experience at other schools and Murch has shown that each new site is typically not move-in ready with sufficient time to allow for proper unpacking, furniture delivery, classroom setup, and making sure everything in the space works. Doing that at the start and finish of the project is a challenge and a understandable necessity. Doing it more times seems unnecessarily disruptive.
- The cost of the proposal – DCPS and DGS had no cost estimate of this split time approach. It would require the building of an entire trailer complex at UDC, upgrades to the UDC field for play space, and then the movement and addition of trailers at Murch. The most recent cost estimate of going to UDC for two years was $6.5 million. The cost of locating onsite for two years was estimated at $2.5 million (without double-decker trailers). This split year plan would save leasing costs on any trailers at UDC for the second year, but would seemingly incorporate many of the other costs of both plans. DCPS and DGS were unable to answer cost questions because this plan emerged within 72 hours prior to the decision being made.
- The potential increase in the length of the construction timeline – Until mid-June 2018, trailers would be located in many areas that will require extensive site work to complete the soccer field, playgrounds and other outdoor spaces. Under the original proposal to swing onsite for two years, DCPS and DGS indicated that the work on those areas would likely extend past the start of school in August 2018. They were unable to say whether that might be an issue under this new plan.
Many of these concerns, including concerns about multiple moves, are issues that DCPS and DGS raised themselves as obstacles to other options. Additionally, members of the SIT asked the agencies in December to outline what could be accomplished onsite in one year, for example, if we needed to swing at Lafayette and then move onsite for the remainder of the construction. The agencies did not develop or provide information, and indicated that a plan to split the time was not a good option, requiring solutions to problems at both sites and favoring the stability of one site for the full two years. That goal was abandoned only because of UDC’s preference for not delaying a partnership with Field LLC for the two years necessary to complete the modernization at Murch.
The SIT, the HSA, and the entire Murch community will work hard to make whatever swing space is developed into the best it can be for Murch students. The SIT members, however, honestly believe that this plan, as currently outlined, is significantly flawed and that it was selected based on poorly placed priorities by UDC and DCPS. We will continue to press DCPS, DGS, UDC, and elected city officials to improve the plan in the coming weeks and will provide more information in the coming days as it is available.
Below is the full text of DCPS’s letter outlining their decision:
Thank you for all of your input and patience as we have worked through the swing space decision. This has been a very complex problem to solve and we have been working hard to find the best solution possible for Murch students, staff, families, and the community. As we have outlined in previous communications, there is not a perfect solution. We have made the decision to build a trailer complex on the UDC field for school year 16-17 and then have the students back on the Murch site for school year 17-18. The builder will focus on getting the existing Murch building renovated and complete and ready for students in August 2017, which means many of the students will have access to a modernized space a year earlier than anticipated. We also believe that most of the noisy and disruptive work on the addition can be completed on the addition, which will make for a more suitable learning environment. There will still need to be some trailers on the site to house some students, but fewer than the full on-site option, which would open up additional space for play. DGS and the builder are still working together to examine exactly what the site will look like after 1 year, but it will be safe and ready for students when they return. As we have outlined in previous communications, there is not a perfect solution, and this plan is not without challenges. We are committed to working through them with our partners at DGS and our other sister agencies.
There are two fields at UDC between Van Ness and Yuma Streets. The trailers will take up the field closer to Van Ness street and the field closer to Yuma street will be available for Murch students. During the second year the fields will be under construction for a UDC & Field LLC project. This means that the upper field would not be accessible for play space and there would be an active construction project going on next to students during the second year.
We know how important before and aftercare is for Murch families. We have been working with and will continue working with the X-Day and the World Languages Program to find a solution to ensure that students still have access to the programs. There is a great connection between Murch and these programs and we want to try to maintain that as much as possible. One option we have been exploring with them is providing space in the swing space location and having them operate out of the Murch swing space location. Additional conversations and planning sessions are required, but we understand how important these programs are to families.
We will also provide transportation to the swing space location. We will work with the school and parents to fully understand the needs (# of students, pick up times, etc.) of the families and determine safe pick up and drop off areas.
We decided to not use the Lafayette site for a number of reasons. This scenario would cause a number of operational and safety concerns for both school populations, especially around drop off and pick up, evacuation, school scheduling, and recess. Having the trailers on the site would limit the majority of the play space to the DPR playground, which would severely impact how the master schedule for both schools is prepared. The pick up and drop off at Lafayette would be extremely challenging and congested with both school populations. This would have required DCPS to stagger the start times by up to an hour to ensure there is a safe pick up and drop off for both schools, which would impact families. There were also concerns with safely evacuating students on the site with the trailers on the site. A firewall would also need to be constructed to meet the requirements.
We understand that there may be some frustration and concern around this decision. We will have a team working hard to ensure that we provide the best learning environment for students and staff as possible.
Deputy Chief, Facilities & IT Initiatives
Office of the Chief Operating Officer