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school without students?
(Published October 22, 2001)
By JONETTA ROSE BARRAS
Why is Fillmore Arts Center in Georgetown, which has neither a principal nor a resident-student population, being treated like a school? That is the question many D.C. Public Schools parents are asking.
Neither DCPS Director of Communications Linda Boyd nor Assistant Superintendent Vera White could answer that question. Nor could the school systemís finance officials. Chief Operating Officer Louis Erste and Chief Academic Officer Mary Gill did not return telephone calls to their offices.
The parentsí concerns directly relate to the way tax dollars are being spent at DCPS, the quality of programs being offered to students systemwide and whether the center is a private contractor masquerading as a school.
Founded in the 1970s, Fillmore Arts Center is located on the third floor of Hardy Middle School at 1819 35th St. NW. Students enrolled in what is commonly called the "Six Schools Complex" in Georgetown ó Ross, Stoddert, Key and Hyde elementary schools and Hardy (the sixth school no longer participates) Ė come on selected days for what amounts to part-time instruction in one or more of several arts including instrumental music, drama, dance, creative writing and visual arts. They frequently are taken to the site on DCPS mini-buses, some of which are also used to transport handicapped children to classes.
Arts education has suffered systemwide in recent years, yet here DCPS is investing extra money in a program for Georgetown schools and not doing the same for the rest of its students. In order to participate in Fillmoreís programs, schools must pay $267 per student from their own budgets. The central office administration provides the arts center with another $212 per student for the same set of Six School children. The general student funding formula that was developed, based on the school population, was used to determine how much out of the systemís overall operating budget would be disbursed to Fillmore Ė but the center has no full-time students. In total, the center is paid $479 per student, according to DCPS finance officials. The allocation represents one of the highest per-pupil costs in the school system. During the last fiscal year, Fillmore received a total of $410,982 for 858 students.
Fillmore also receives funds from a nonprofit organization called the Friends of Fillmore Arts Center. According to its federal tax return filed in January 2000, a copy of which was obtained by yours truly, the group received a total of $278,416 in revenue, most of which came from a summer camp it operates out of the Hardy school building. The organization has never paid DCPS for the use of the school, asserting the program is sponsored by the PTA.
"How can they have a PTA when they donít have students?" asked one parent who requested anonymity.
But everyone at DCPS insists Fillmore is a school.
Patricia Mitchell, however, canít decide how to describe her organization or her own status. First she says she is not a principal and Fillmore is not a school. Then she says it is a school, comparing it to Duke Ellington High School of the Arts and School Without Walls. The problem is that each of those schools are schools: They have a resident-student body and a principal, and they offer academic curricula. Fillmore has none of these elements.
Then Mitchell circles back and argues that Fillmore is an extension of the physical plant of the six schools it serves. Which compels these questions: Why are these schools paying an additional amount of money to have their students served in their own building? And why is the school system kicking in an additional $181,896?
"I donít know what the rationale is. Itís probably because thatís the way itís always been done," she finally concedes before abruptly ending the interview.
Another Six Schools parent who also requested anonymity says she knows why DCPS delivers the wad of money to Fillmore: "Itís a racket. They act as if there is no other way to deliver art and music to our schools."
Finance officials in charge of helping schools save money by running a cost-efficient operation say they have not compared the price of doing business with Fillmore to that of providing a part-time roving pool of artists who would travel to the schools to deliver similar services. They also havenít determined whether having permanent part-time arts instructors at the targeted six schools would be more cost-efficient. "There hasnít been a request for that," says one finance official. Have mercy!
From all appearances finance officials at DCPS have sanctioned double dipping. Whatís even more troubling is that no one has seriously examined the relationship between Fillmore, DCPS and the Six Schools Complex.
For all intents and purposes, Fillmore appears to be a private contractor and has been one since its inception, although in the beginning it had its own building. For more than 20 years, it has been living the all-too-popular sole-source life ó not a unique feature in the D.C. government. Fillmore has raked in millions of dollars without the slightest threat of anyone muscling in at its feeding tray.
Parents have asked the school system for not only a financial audit but also a program audit of Fillmore. Not surprisingly, they have been getting the runaround. Their request is not unreasonable, given how much each school is paying from its own budget. Whatís more, there is the very possibility that DCPS can hire a self-contained arts program for far less than itís paying Fillmore.
Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator