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D.C. School Renovations Run $107 Million Over Budget

Renovations at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts were initially estimated at $71 million, but over a period of three years, that price grew to more than $178 million. A new report by the D.C. Auditor's Office shows that the Department of General Services (DGS) made significant errors in planning the renovations, such as missing deadlines, underestimating costs, and failing to consider cheaper locations.


The DGS based its initial estimate on a renovation project of a traditional high school with a smaller student body than Duke Ellington's. The project assumed a population of 500 students and a square footage of 167,500, while Duke Ellington has a student population of 600 and a square footage 278,524. In addition, Duke Ellington requires additional elements for its performing arts focus, including “sound-insulated rooms, a dance studio, make-up and dressing rooms, a costume room, a scene construction shop, and a box office for ticket sales,” according to the report. The difference in size, combined with the difference of performance facilities, rendered the initial estimation inaccurate.

Another source of expense came from the decision to renovate the school in its current location rather than move it to a cheaper location nearby, such as the Ellington Field. After pushback from students and alumni, Mayor Vincent Gray of D.C. and other elected officials communicated that Duke Ellington would remain where it was. The D.C. audit report contends that these officials were not sufficiently transparent in presenting the costs and benefits of moving the location to the public, stating that not only was there “no evidence of public deliberation on location,” but also that “no cost comparison was undertaken at the time.”

Building a new school would have also allowed designers to construct the building with the arts in mind, without having to retrofit a building not designed for that purpose. Board members noted that “the current facility was never intended to serve as a school for the arts” and that a new structure would provide “a once in a lifetime opportunity to ‘get the design right’ for Ellington in a holistic fashion." The total cost for building a new school on Ellington Field would have been $105.7 million—significantly less than the cost of renovating the existing building.


In addition to being over budget, the renovations have also experienced substantial delays. The DGS missed several deadlines in approving building plans and selecting architects, causing the project to begin years later than had been scheduled. While the project was scheduled to start on June 15, 2013, actual construction did not begin until April 2015.

The director for the DGS denies wrongdoing in the renovation process but asserts that the department has nonetheless implemented “various improvements…to enhance planning, accountability, and cost controls.” Construction is currently underway at Duke Ellington, though the time of the project’s completion is unknown.

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