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‘Not a budget’

D.C. school trustees approve $627 million spending plan

(Published March 8, 1999)


Staff Writer

The District’s appointed school trustees voted to approve a $627 million fiscal 2000 budget for D.C. Public Schools without ever seeing an actual line-item budget.

The wording of the agenda passed out at the Feb. 24 meeting of the Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees included an easy-to-overlook detail: the board wasn’t scheduled to vote on next year’s proposed school budget — the agenda said it was scheduled to "approve" it.

But not everyone thought approval of school officials’ proposed budget should be a foregone conclusion. Wilma Harvey, president of the elected D.C. Board of Education and a member of the trustees board, abstained.

"I can’t vote on a budget I don’t have," she said. "The only thing I have ever seen is a spending plan, and a spending plan is not a budget." The other eight trustees voted to approve the budget in the form presented.

The materials handed out to the trustees in preparation for the vote included a 25-page executive summary, discussed at a closed-door briefing immediately preceding the vote. The document included two or three paragraphs of narrative and a large lump sum describing various programs. As trustees were leaving the briefing to head into the public meeting, they were handed an 80-page document stamped "draft," Harvey said. They had about 20 minutes to look at it before they voted.

Complete copies of the budget won’t be available to the public until March 10, a school spokesman said.

But a copy of the "budget" obtained by The Common Denominator revealed that the document is not really a budget at all. It’s what administrators call "a planning document." There are no line-item breakdowns, just narrative descriptions and large lump sums.

For example, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman requested $22.2 million in local funds for "facilities management," including custodians and physical maintenance, more than 50 percent above the amount included in the fiscal 1999 budget under that category. The $22.2 million is divided into only two line items — $12.2 million for salaries, wages, overtime and benefits associated with personnel costs, and about $10 million for everything else.

Among the "activities" this department is responsible for, according to the budget document, are mechanical and structural maintenance, repair and replacement of fire alarms, public address systems, clocks, bells, security alarms, escalators, boilers, air conditioning, roofing, pest control and emergency generators. The department also handles environmental compliance, trash disposal, fire code management, hazardous materials management and a project about lead in drinking water.

No other information about how the department will spend the $22.2 million of D.C. tax dollars is given.

Myong Leigh, acting director of the DCPS budget division, said line-item breakdowns do exist — or rather, will exist, once they are "loaded" into the computer in the fall. The line-item breakdowns by what is called "object class" were used to build the current budget request "from the bottom up," he said, but have not been circulated publicly.

"I wanted to provide some supplemental schedules that would show those for people who wanted to see them," he said, "but I’ve been so busy I haven’t been able to."

He said if administrators had circulated that detailed information, "people would ask us why we thought anyone would care."

And it seems no one with oversight responsibility for the public schools has cared about such things in the District of Columbia for quite some time. No school board or city council sources contacted by The Common Denominator could recall ever seeing a line-item budget for the schools.

Following the school trustees vote, the budget was forwarded to the D.C. financial control board for review. Control board Vice Chairman Constance Newman, who oversees education, said it would likely be a few weeks before the control board votes. She said she is not concerned about the budget process so far but does understand why some parents and activists are upset.

"You can’t expect people to support what you’re doing if they don’t know what it is," Newman said. "They have to have the information." But some feel that information was withheld even about the trustee vote itself.

The school trustees’ vote to approve the fiscal 2000 budget also included their final approval of a new "weighted student formula" for distributing money to individual schools.

Parents, school board members and reporters who asked school administration staff before the trustees’ Feb. 24 meeting whether the formula was going to be voted on were repeatedly told no. At the meeting, the formula, which had received preliminary approval Feb. 11, was incorporated into the budget vote.

At that meeting, Ackerman said discussion of the weights in the formula was over and that parents and other activists who wanted any more input should direct their attention to individual school budgets.

In the meantime, school administrators are moving ahead rapidly to prepare principals, teachers and parents for school-based budgeting, a system which will greatly decentralize budgeting and grant principals greater authority over their individual budgets. Each school’s budget is determined by enrollment based on a per-pupil formula that gives extra funds to schools enrolling special education students, students from poor families, and students who speak little or no English.

Many principals have be-gun to meet with staff, parents and other members of their Local School Restructuring Team, which represents each school community.

Raquel Gordon attended the community meeting Feb. 26 at Jefferson Junior High School, where her 12-year-old daughter attends. Gordon said only eight parents showed up. She also attended a meeting at the school March 4, where DCPS representatives explained the "weighted student formula" with lots of charts and handouts. At the end of the meeting, Gordon said she wasn’t completely clear on how things were going to work but she was "optimistic."

"Anything is better than what we have now," she said. But Gordon said she was somewhat concerned about her daughter, who desperately wants to attend Banneker Senior High School next year. But the Gordons live in Ward 7, and Banneker is out of their local boundary. Gordon said she couldn’t help wondering if the school would be less willing to accept her daughter if they could attract a special education or non-English-speaking student who would bring in more money instead.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator