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School cuts shorten academic year

(Published December 3, 2001)


Staff Writer

Parents of D.C. public school students may not be happy that their children will lose out on seven days of education, but school board members said shortening the school year was the best way to shield students from necessary budget cuts.

Board of Education members expressed frustration during a Nov. 29 meeting about having to make cuts but said they were determined not to make teachers pay with their jobs.

"We lose a lot more educationally by cutting teachers than we do by cutting time," said Charles R. Lawrence, a mayoral appointee to the board.

A 3 to 6 percent across-the-board cut for all schools had been proposed by the public school system’s chief operating officer, Louis Erste, to try to close an expected $26.1 million gap in the current fiscal year’s budget. The recommendation would have meant eliminating hundreds of teachers or other school-based staff, resulting in the loss of many newly hired teachers who were found through an aggressive effort to begin transforming poorly performing schools, officials said.

The schoolchildren and teachers didn’t cause the deficit, argued board member Laura Gardner, another mayoral appointee to the board. She said she was opposed to voting on anything that would put the burden on them. The rest of the Board members agreed.

With so little money to go around, frustrated board members were still not willing to make the layoffs. Elected District VI board member William Lockridge brought up a citizen’s idea that was thrown out to the Board of Education during the previous week’s public hearing at Hine Junior High School, regarding the fiscal 2002 and 2003 budgets.

The idea -- that schools should be closed early to reduce spending -- came from Larry Gray, legislative director of the D.C. Congress of PTAs. Gray asked the board to "consider alternatives that do less immediate harm." Some board members noted that Gray’s idea eliminated the possibility of laying off teachers right before Christmas.

Superintendent Paul Vance acknowledged that he had not considered cutting days off the school year instead of the across-the-board cuts because the idea "never came up" during discussion of possible solutions among school officials. He noted that in the days of the energy crunch, schools got by though extending the holidays. He said that shortening the number of school days resulted in "a considerable cost-savings" for the schools, although that has not been done for a while in the District.

While board members approved budget cuts based on a deficit of $26.1 million projected by the city’s chief financial officer’s staff, school officials are disputing the accuracy of financial figures emanating from the CFO’s office. Board members said they would assume the projected deficit to be accurate, but if later it turns out there is more money than originally thought, board members felt that would simply be a nice surprise.

In addition to slicing seven days out of the current school year, expected to save $9.8 million, the board voted to cut

Lockridge said a 3 percent across-the-board cut would have eliminated "our rising stars" of teachers, and the Teach for America teachers that are so vital to the District. Teach for America teachers were the largest interest group in attendance at the previous week’s budget hearing.

Gray summed up what others were saying, that DCPS needs higher-quality teachers but has no way to keep them. He pointed out that years 1994 to 1998 were "disastrous for system reform." He said draconian cuts "will destroy remaining morale" among those in the school system.

School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said that she also likes that the decision to chop off the end of the year visibly, instead of making the cuts invisible by across-the-board treatment, will also indicate that "we are not fully funded. We never were." She said that she would love to see collective action against the city. She said she agrees with city officials that the budget for the schools has gone up dramatically in recent years, but she called school funding "criminally low" now.

In addition to the fiscal 2002 budget cuts, the board gave its approval to a $946 million fiscal 2003 budget for the school system. The budget will now go the mayor’s office for additional hearings and to be incorporated into the overall city budget to be sent to the council and Congress.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator