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ĎDistrustí mars school debate

(Published February 22, 1999)


Staff Writer

A plan to radically change the way more than $300 million is distributed to D.C. public schools received preliminary approval this month over the protests of parents, community activists and elected officials. Now, as Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and her staff tinker with the details behind closed doors, they face a rising tide of public frustration and resentment.

"Parents used to feel that if they hung in there, and got involved and joined the PTA and fussed at the principal, they could make sure their kid was getting a good education," said parent and longtime activist Frank Method. "But people are losing confidence in their ability to do that, because the system is blowing them off."

Revisions to the proposed weighted student funding formula were circulated among school officials Feb. 17 but were not announced to the public. The appointed Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees is expected to vote on the revised plan Feb. 24, without seeking public comment.

Ironically, most of the people who have objected to Ackermanís plan favor the idea of moving toward a weighted formula, Method said. They just want to have some input on the details.

The perceived indifference of administration officials "is leading to community distrust even of potentially sound decisions and needed re-forms," Method said.

The revisions to the formula appear to address some of the concerns raised by parents

and elected officials in recent weeks. According to documents from the superintendentís office, the revised formula would:

ē Raise the standard per-student allotment from $3,479 to $3,817.

ē Distribute funds more equitably across grade levels, while still giving about 20 percent more funding to preschool and kindergarten, and 6 percent more to grades 1 through 3 than to older students.

ē Reduce slightly the extra funding given to schools with poor or non-English speaking students.

ē Reduce the amount of extra funding given to schools with special education students.

ē Drop a previous provision giving schools with a history of low test scores an extra $100 per student, which some people had objected to as "rewarding failure."

"These are good revisions, itís a good formula," said Mary Levy, counsel for the advocacy group Parents United and a member of the committee that drew up the original plan. "Itís just too bad the administration is so fearful of the public."

But many public concerns were left unaddressed by the revisions ó among them, the concern voiced by all members of D.C. City Councilís education committee, that the plan, which allocates money on a per-pupil basis, would encourage large schools and penalize small ones.

The elected school board had similar concerns and passed a set of recommended modifications to Ackermanís plan earlier this month. Among the D.C. Board of Educationís recommendations: assigning custodians based on square footage and enrollment (rather than at the principalsí discretion) and giving equal weight to elementary, middle and high schools. The board also sought assurance from school administrators that there is a system in place to get an accurate student count and that the necessary personnel, budget and procurement procedures are in place before shifting to the new funding plan. Under the plan, principals will have vastly expanded financial power, and some will be expected to make decisions about $1 million budgets.

"We wanted to make sure there was enough training for principals in procurement and budgeting," said school board president Wilma Harvey. "Iím an educator. I never took a class in finance. I donít know how to handle millions of dollars."

Although the boardís recommendations were disregarded by the trustees, Ackerman and her staff say they are giving the public a chance to review the plan. Four "informational" public meetings will be held March 4, 11, 18 and 25. Administrators will make a presentation on the formula and the public will be invited to ask questions. But Ackerman will not be in attendance, school officials said.

"Thereís a major philosophical difference between the two school boards," said Harvey, who sits on both of them. "The elected board must listen to the people, the parents of this city. The trustees say: ĎThis is what we are going to do ó how do you like it?í"

Maudine Cooper, chairman of the board of trustees, did not return calls for comment.

But the outcries of activists like Method, who Feb. 12 sent a four-page letter of protest to control board chairman Alice Rivlin about the "unhealthy environment that has developed around the D.C. public schools," donít necessarily help, some say.

"Itís getting way too personal," said Tonya Kinlow, also a member of both school boards. "Itís not about the children anymore. Itís about whoís not listening to whom. I want people to calm down about this."

Kinlow said Ackerman and the trustees are addressing concerns raised by parents, the city council and the elected school board but need to conduct those deliberations in private.

"To expect them to put together a program this complex in public is unrealistic," she said.

Anger has been building ever since details leaked out weeks ago about the 35-member committee that had been working on the plan behind closed doors. Concern that Ackerman was shutting out the public grew when the appointed trustees, of which she is a member, approved the proposal Feb. 11 without discussion or public hearing. Supporters of the plan, called out by Ackerman to attend, held up large placards, even though signs usually are not allowed at meetings.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator