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CFO audits $25 million spike in special ed cost
(Published September 5, 2005)

Staff Writer

Court-imposed special education expenses, coupled with the rising cost of gasoline, are causing multimillion-dollar cost overruns in the current D.C. Public Schools budget.

But D.C. City Councilwoman Kathy Patterson, who chairs the council's education committee, told The Common Denominator that she expects unspent tax dollars appropriated in other budget areas to be reprogrammed to prevent the schools from ending the current fiscal year on Sept. 30 with a deficit.

"They'll absolutely end up in the black," Patterson said of the schools.

Meanwhile, the Ward 3 councilwoman said D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi's staff is auditing special education expenses to determine why tuition paid to send D.C. students to privately run special ed programs, under federal court order, has exceeded this year's budget by about $25 million.

In an Aug. 15 memo to the D.C. Board of Education and Superintendent Clifford Janey, DCPS Chief Financial Officer John D. Musso cites the District's current $25 million liability for non-public school tuition as "the largest and most serious" of several budget pressures.

Musso attributed the school system's overspending in the current fiscal year primarily to the tuition costs and expenses for transporting special education students to their programs outside the public schools. At the end of July, according to Musso's memo, only two-tenths of a percent of the school system's transportation budget remained unspent, with 16.67 percent of the fiscal year left.

"It is anticipated that we will be able to meet all of the spending pressures that currently exist through utilization of a myriad of gap closing strategies," Musso wrote. "As of date, all current gap closing strategies have been successful, anticipating that the budget will be balanced at year end, resulted in a small surplus."

Musso was on vacation and unavailable last week, but Superintendent Janey estimated a year-end surplus of "probably $200,00 to $300,000" for the schools.

"The problem is, the money gets swept into the District's General Fund DCPS can't keep the balance," Janey noted.

Patterson said she and City Administrator Robert Bobb plan to resurrect the city's former interagency task force on special education this fall to work on resolving the school system's longstanding inadequacies in meeting some students' special learning needs. The school system's inability to adequately educate special education students resulted in the current court intervention that has routinely resulted over the years in a large part of the public school system's budget being expended on a proportionately small number of students.

"Much of what has to happen is known," Patterson said. "It's a matter of the will to make it happen."

Patterson said school officials have been "making progress" in building the capacity within the public schools to educate the most seriously impaired children.

"But it will take a long time to catch up," she said.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator