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Wilma Harvey, President
Board of Education of the District of Columbia
Testimony to the House Committee on Appropriations
Subcommittee on the District of Columbia
June 24, 1998




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Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today. You have asked me as President of the elected Board of Education of the District of Columbia (and in representation of my fellow members of the elected Board) to testify concerning the budget for the public school system of the District of Columbia for the coming year. I am also, ex officio, a member of the Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees.

The Budgetary Process This Year

I take no pleasure in this testimony. Though I am pleased to see budget increases, I am very concerned about the budget processes.

Let me say for the record that the Board of Education in its three-decade history has always conducted a public review process of public school budgets. We have always worked with the school system to produce defensible budgets on time. The 1999 DC public school budget is not a product of a structured budgetary process. And I cannot tell you in truth that I have been provided with detailed documentation that justifies the budget mark included in the District's 1999 budget. I am not happy about this, and I owe you (and the voters of the District of Columbia) an explanation.

The process for developing a budget for the District of Columbia public school system (DCPS) is in disarray. The roles to be played by appointed and elected officials are unclear. And the public has been left out.

  • No Control Board member currently has been assigned responsibility for DCPS education issues.
  • A federal judge will soon rule on the status of the Emergency Board of Trustees in implementation of the decision of a three-judge federal panel that declared the Trustees, as they have been operating, illegal.
  • The chair of the Trustees resigned and that member's vacancy has not been properly filled.
  • The current Chief Financial Officer of the DCPS has been on the job only a few weeks, having been assigned the job shortly after the discovery of a $62 million shortfall. (In the 19-month history of the Emergency Trustees, that body has worked with four different CFOs.)
  • The CFO of the Control Board, to whom the D.C. public schools’ CFOs report, has himself resigned with less than a week’s notice, and the current Control Board CFO is serving on an interim basis.
  • Two separate boards are now chartering schools for next school year, and their uncoordinated activities will have a great impact on funding requirements.

This budget before you now is only an approximate and very preliminary document. I take seriously my responsibility to consult with the members of the elected board, to say nothing of the parents and other citizens. I have not had a sufficiently detailed or complete budget for this consultation. Therefore, it is impossible for me, as President of the elected Board of Education, to view the budget in the same light as the unelected Board of Trustees. This breaks the link by which the tax-paying public might have been able to influence the budgetary process.

This budget

Although I have serious criticisms of the process that produced this budget, I am here to tell you that it does one thing right. We do need additional funds to meet the needs of our children for the coming year. We cannot fall further behind neighboring jurisdictions in teacher pay. We cannot put off the creation of personnel and financial systems that work. We cannot break promises to deal with long-overdue settlements with maintenance and support staff. We cannot neglect the buildings in which our children spend their school days. We must deal with our special education needs, or the courts will take this issue out of our hands and send us the bill.

We need at least the full amount represented by this budget. We will now have to adjust and reallocate within this budget. And of course the oversight required to see that every dollar is well spent is a task always before us. But deficiencies in the process that will ultimately produce the real budget will have to be remedied.

I would like to leave you with these questions: What resources will be available in the schools? How much discretion will local schools have in using these resources? The elected Board of Education strongly believes that the 1999 budget must provide parents with the assurance that their children will have well-qualified teachers and administrators who are paid accordingly; that well-planned instructional programs are in place with the support required (textbooks, instructional materials, and computers); and that all students are in a safe learning environment. In short, parents will measure this budget by what it means in their local schools. Parents in the District of Columbia want the same thing for their children that parents and communities across the country want for theirs. Taxpayers in the District of Columbia expect the same level of accountability that is demanded by taxpayers elsewhere. I am confident this can be accomplished.

Detailed critique

Too much of the budget is in very general categories; it's hard to know what exactly is being approved. Of the $44M increase in Non-Personal Services (former OTPS), $42.5M is accounted as increases in “supplies and materials” at $10.3M, “other services” at $15.5M, and "subsidies and transfers" at $16.8 M.

Capital financing after 1999 is quite inadequate, declining sharply from $97 M in 1999 to $47 M in 2001 and with continuing reductions projected for later years. Moreover, even the funding for FY 1999 is not assured, with only $55 M covered by long-term financing and the other $42 million listed as “Other” — unspecified — financing.

At best, this budget provides for accelerated replacement of roofs, boilers, chillers, windows and other capital components. This work has to be done. However, we also have to have new, well-designed facilities and fully renovated buildings. This budget does not provide for any new schools to be built with DCPS budgeted resources in the foreseeable future. (Parents have planned better than the system, however: there will be at least one new school, perhaps two, built by public-private partnerships.)

Special-Needs Programs continue to consume a large share of the budget. Reallocations in this budget show no promise of limiting future growth of the special needs programs. We will have aggressive new programs to hire special education teachers and aides and to increase the numbers of special-needs students accommodated in mainstream classrooms. But it seems that we will see increases in the number of special-needs students and the number who require expensive out-placements in private schools. These increases account for a significant part (perhaps more than half) of the increased budget for FY 1999 and for most of the additional staff. (The budget talks of 1800 new special education teaching positions and 1461 new placements in private schools, if DCPS is successful in working off the backlog of reviews.)

Central Procurement is presented as a cost-saving measure, which depends on principals to improve central administration. “Principals are to play an integral part of any changes in central administration.” In fact, this is very upsetting to principals because it means the local school management teams have less and less discretion over their expenditures such as textbooks and that most staffing will now be done by formula.

Charter Schools are a worrisome set of “wild card” assumptions. If we lose these bets, charter schools might be badly under-funded. If charter school attract more students than expected or if unanticipated costs must be met, this budget is busted. There is no provision for increases and there is no way to reallocate funds currently budgeted for charter schools if the enrollment is less than projected.

There are three key assumptions as to how the Charter Schools will affect future budgets. Each of these is unproven and may be quite wrong.

1. We can do little more than guess at future Charter School enrollment. It is assumed that most of the Charter School enrollment. will be students who would otherwise enroll in DCPS public schools. Significant numbers will be new students, students who would otherwise have moved or students who would otherwise have been enrolled in private schools. What the net effect will be on public school enrollment. cannot be predicted accurately. However, it is almost certain that the budget assumption is wrong. All of the Charter School enrollment will not be subtracted from DCPS enrollment numbers.

2. We cannot assume that students once enrolled in Charter Schools are permanently committed to alternatives to the DCPS schools. Some will return by choice; some charters will fail; some students will fail in the charter schools and seek alternatives in the DCPS schools. The DCPS schools must plan for these possibilities. However, there are no guidelines in place for how to do so and how to handle the issue of maintaining a margin of contingency space and capacity.

3. We have no basis for the assumption that the Charter Schools will lead to competition in terms of operating budgets (bottom p. C-8) and that this will lead to downward pressure on the non-personal services budgets of the DCPS schools. The Charter Schools currently have a number of one-time subsidies from a variety of sources. These subsidies are unlikely to be repeated or sustained. There is every likelihood that as the real costs of Charter School become apparent there will be significant pressure from Charter School advocates for increases in the per capita funding, for relief from certain non-instructional costs, and for reallocation of other program support. In fact, I predict that in the future the proponents of public charter schools will become partners with the other public schools in advocating increased funding throughout the public school system of the District.

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