Commentary | Education

Backward budgeting at the D.C. schools

Originally appeared as an Op-ed in the Washington Post

According to the District’s official budget book, this year’s spending plan for D.C. public schools is running at $750  million. Next year’s proposed budget is $827  million, a 10.3 percent increase.

That increase, in today’s hard economic times, will strike most parents as wonderfully surprising news. But they would be wise to hold the cheering. A quarter of the $77 million increase, over $18 million, will go to central administration. Meanwhile, direct allocations to schools will drop.

D.C. school officials, we need to note, don’t see things this way. Acting Chancellor Kaya Henderson says the real numbers show just a $3.7 million increase for next year and a drop in funding for central administration. The budget book they provided the public and the D.C. Council, she says, is not accurate and differs from the real budget, which evidently only DCPS leadership can see. The total dollars that schools receive for teachers and other budget items, their argument goes, will stay about the same. But they neglect to point out that the higher salaries for teachers that Michelle Rhee negotiated will come out of those school allocations, as will a number of school-based staff positions that the central office budget used to cover.

We’ve added these changes up. The bottom line: Most schools will see a significant real cut in what they have to spend. The proposed school budget represents a major shift from schools to administration. This budget should not be supported by the D.C. Council.

The majority of schools will lose staff, even schools with increasing enrollments. At the School Without Walls — one of the few schools where parents have begun challenging the new DCPS budget plan — staff will be down four teachers, one counselor and an office assistant. With enrollment up by 63 students, the School Without Walls will be losing almost $2,000 per pupil.

Other D.C. schools will be hit even harder. Our D.C. comprehensive neighborhood high schools already rate as the lowest-funded per-pupil schools in the system. Yet Roosevelt HS, a school set to lose only 50 students, will be losing the equivalent of eight teaching positions. Cardozo will be losing nine teachers, despite losing only 16 students. Both Duke Ellington and Phelps are also cutting staff.

Hendley and Leckie elementaries, two Ward 8 schools in some of D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods, have been cut by $1,600 to $1,700 per pupil. Hart Middle School in Ward 8 is losing $1,168 per student, Plummer Elementary in Ward 7 $2,516 per student. The list goes on.

The majority of D.C. schools face staffing cuts. The big question: Why aren’t more parents upset? Our answer: Most parents don’t know what’s in the budget.

The budget documents getting circulated are so skimpy and confusing that few people can figure out what’s being funded at lower levels. According to the D.C. Code, DCPS must divide the budget into two categories, schools and central offices, with detailed funding for each. School officials haven’t done that. Instead, they’re manipulating new budget categories to obfuscate the reality that dollars for administration are going up — at the expense of our neighborhood schools.

If DCPS were run by an elected school board, that board would probably be blasting away by now at a school administration that put forward as nontransparent a budget document as what we have before us. But we don’t have an elected school board. And now we see what total mayoral control and unaccountable chancellorships have brought us.

The council is treating Henderson as if she still needed time to prove herself. She and her team are not new. She was deputy chancellor for almost four years.

Before acting on this budget, the D.C. Council needs, first, to insist on knowing where the DCPS money is going. Second, the council needs to reverse any shift in resources from schools to central administration.

Third, the D.C. Council needs to think twice about Henderson’s permanent appointment as chancellor this week. Henderson should have known better than to foist a budget like this on D.C. students and parents. A council vote of no confidence in Henderson would be far more appropriate, at this point, than a permanent appointment.

Mark Simon is an education policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. Mary Levy is the former education reform project director for the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. From mid-April to May 30 she was employed by the D.C. Council as a temporary budget analyst.

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