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Theatrics mask continuing problem
(Published October 8, 2001)

By JONETTA ROSE BARRAS

No one should think that the $60 million in additional revenue, approved last month by the financial control board to be used principally for the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), will effect a fiscal rescue for the troubled institution Ė especially since the new fiscal year started the same as the old one ended.

On Oct. 1 Ė when fiscal 2002 began Ė DCPS already had a new projected deficit of $100 million, according to Bert Molina, the systemís finance officer, and Francis Smith, executive director of the now dismantled control board. Almost the entire potential deficit is related, once again, to special education, which accounts for about one third of DCPSís nearly $787 million annual budget. Only 17 percent of the student population is served through the special education program.

About $21 million of the potential deficit is for Medicaid expenses already paid for which the school system believes it will be unable to secure federal reimbursement. "The rest represents spending pressures in [general special education] programs, transportation and utilities," says Molina. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi says that "Medicaid is the most significant non-appropriated revenue source for DCPS and the school system is highly dependent on Medicaid payments to defray special education operating costs."

But while the District was able to apply its fiscal 2001 revenue surplus to bail out the school system last year, next time around is an entirely different matter. The economic ripple from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is expected to damage the cityís tenuous fiscal recovery. The Districtís major industries Ė tourism and hospitality Ė have been hard hit by the closure of Reagan National Airport. Officials expect a minimum $100 million revenue shortfall for the first quarter of fiscal 2002.

D.C. Council Chairman Pro Tempore Jack Evans, who chairs the councilís Finance and Revenue Committee, says that it took the District an entire year to recover from the Persian Gulf War. Although the airport opened Oct. 4, concerns remain about downtown street closings affecting the health of local businesses and further eroding the Districtís sales and individual income tax receipts. The anticipated citywide shortfall inevitably will mean program and services cuts.

Finance officials have begun to develop a citywide plan to address problems associated with Medicaid at all agencies, including DCPS. A proposal for tackling the school systemís new $100 potential deficit has yet to be approved. "There is a need to balance the budget, but it has to be policy driven," says Molina, adding that recommendations have been made to the superintendent.

DCPSís fiscal woes, coupled with declining Stanford 9 and SAT standardized test scores, indicate that the reconfigured D.C. Board of Education has thus far not delivered on the promise of a better managed, better performing system. The board, which includes four mayoral appointees Ė who also are approved by the D.C. Council Ė and five elected members, has yet to rein in spending, initiate any significant educational programs to improve student performance, or impose tangible consequences for failing teachers and principals. The board voted Oct. 1 to request a full audit of the school system, division by division.

As in the past, finger-pointing and blaming are epidemic. School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz Ė taking a lead from the three famous monkeys who heard no evil, saw no evil and spoke no evil Ė told the councilís Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation last month that she couldnít speak to the $80 million deficit in special education discovered in the last quarter of fiscal 2001. She said she didnít know what the truth was Ė which has to be the lamest thing any elected official could say. As school board president, itís her job to ferret out the facts, present them to the public and provide for a solution that not only resolves the immediate problem but ensures there isnít a repeat.

Superintendent Paul Vance, in an apparent attempt to lay blame solely at the office of the CFO, says he repeatedly requested financial reports and was told they would be forthcoming; but nothing was ever presented. This suggests that Vance believes neither he, nor his chief operating officer, nor the director of special education programs holds any responsibility for the school systemís fiscal health. That assumption and his comments provide a great deal of insight into his management style.

Mayor-in-Wanting Kevin Chavous, who chairs the councilís education committee, was incredulous when school officials pleaded ignorance. And residents and parents were equally incredulous when he acted as if he, too, did not know the state of the cityís special education program. After all, Chavousís committee is responsible for monitoring the school system. For the past several years the lawmaker reportedly has been pushing special education reform, including improvements to the systemís God-awful transportation services.

So, why didnít Chavous know that Maximus, the corporation hired to help the school system with Medicaid reimbursements, had collected in two years a mere $49 million? Why didnít he know that the systemís special education costs were exceeding its appropriated budget, putting DCPS in line for a violation of federal anti-deficiency laws? Didnít he know that DCPS does not have contracts with many of the educational programs outside the city where D.C. students are being placed by the court-appointed special master? Didnít he know that because there are no contracts, schools officials cannot secure appropriate documentation required for Medicaid reimbursements?

Behind the hand-wringing and the theatrics is this cold reality: Elected officials and bureaucrats have failed to provide the leadership and program efficiency needed to fully reform not just special education but the entire public school system. Whatís new?

 

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator