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Taking note . . .

Observations about public affairs in the nation’s capital
by the editor of The Common Denominator

LOW-BALL BUDGETING: Are D.C. residents just too busy to pay attention or are they really buying all the mumbo-jumbo that's been dished up by city leaders about the District's finances?

Wall Street standards of fiscal responsibility for municipalities have certainly reached a new low when bond raters continue to reward sleight-of-hand tactics practiced by D.C. leaders as though they were fiscal wizardry. Yours truly has to wonder sometimes if the rating agencies also have been touched by the corruption that has led to scandal and the downfall of so many previously vaunted leaders of the nation's corporate business community.

As D.C. City Council and the mayor work to craft next year's D.C. budget, few seem to be questioning talk of the city again expecting to receive millions in surplus revenue during fiscal 2007. The operative term here is "expecting." The ink isn't dry on the budget yet. If the revenue is expected, it shouldn't be considered "surplus." Put it in the budget. Show the taxpayers some real numbers, for a change.

City leaders have gotten so bold with their semantics games that, earlier this year, they got away with passing a law that bases part of the financing for school modernization on these so-called "surplus" funds. And they're calling it "guaranteed" funding.

Of course, local school activists could have gotten a true guarantee with bond financing if city leaders had been responsible about using those "surplus" dollars that have materialized during the decade since creation of the District's independent chief financial officer to oversee city finances. Rather than using the unbudgeted funds to pay down the city's tremendously high bond indebtedness, the mayor and council have simply spent much of the money.

Surplus funds? Or have city leaders just found a clever way – through low-ball budgeting – to spend on their pet projects without drawing much public scrutiny because the money is always "extra"?

PROMOTING CHARTER SCHOOLS: D.C. taxpayers provided the $238,000 in funding for a new eight-part television series called "Charter Schools in Focus: Myths, Truths and Realities" that began airing April 2 on cable TV's News Channel 8. A new part of the series is scheduled to be shown at 3 p.m. each Sunday, with the entire series to become available on the D.C. Public Charter School Board's Web site at after the last show airs.

The funding for the programs, according to a spokeswoman for the congressionally created chartering authority, is part of a two-year $2.75 million D.C. government grant to support public charter school compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"The series aims to inform parents of the provisions of the law, how it applies to charter schools, and what options are available to them if their child's school does not make the state-established Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks. It also highlights the wide array of charter school options and describes how charter schools are accountable to parents, community members, and their authorizers," according to a press release issued by the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator