It’s The Staffing

The title of this blog entry was the only conclusion I could make after listening to several council hearings, the DCPS budget forum, and one of the DCPS chancellor forums (this past week at Eastern high school). As varied as the venues and witnesses were, the bottom line for all was that staffing in our public schools is often compromised relative to what we are asking from our public schools. (And that’s not even getting into the council’s hearing last week, on graduation rate accountability, which veered into amazing waters.)

Let’s proceed chronologically:

In the city council’s hearing on November 15 to make sense of DCPS summer modernizations, it quickly became apparent that even council members don’t have good tabs on what goes down with the city agency, DGS, in charge of school modernizations. Mary Cheh—who heads the council committee with DGS oversight—lamented the fact that while her council colleague David Grosso has semi-monthly meetings about school modernizations (in his role as head of the council’s education committee), she herself has had no such information sharing.

Indeed, at one point, talking about lack of maintenance associated with renovated schools, Cheh asked, “where’s the manual for building operation?” (Answer: there is none.)

She then noted that janitors are often the front line for building needs and maintenance–which is stunning. How often do our school janitors publicly testify, much less have input in school decision making of any sort?

The day before, on November 14, many of the 26 witnesses for the legally mandated DCPS budget hearing took their allotted 3 minutes to note how staffing for their schools was often compromised in one way or another, whether in terms of budget timing, budget shortfalls from one year to the next, or enrollment projection weirdness that–wait for it–resulted in budget shortfalls and thus cuts in needed staff. (See the transcript here.)

The cumulative effect was to portray a school system disconnected from, and even at odds with, its own schools.

(That impression was not helped when one of the witnesses, a parent who did not sign up ahead of time, initially was barred from testifying—and when another witness, from Miner Elementary, was identified in the video as from “Minor” Elementary (15:57).)

Yet, other recent public testimony shows that DCPS is hardly alone among city agencies in appearing to have a disconnect from publicly articulated needs for schools.

For instance, at the council hearing on November 20, on special education services in DC’s public schools, public witness after witness attested to the fact that the city’s unfunded 2014 law on special education really does need funding, to provide essential staffing (and thus special education services) where they are needed the most and currently not provided.

Molly Whalen, executive director of the DC Association for Special Education, perhaps said it best, when she noted (in the video at 1:54:14, boldface mine) that “we do not have enough special educators. We don’t have enough related service providers. We have more security guards in our public schools than social workers.”

That same council hearing went on to detail many egregious violations of basic decency, including students being held back because they were not identified early enough as needing special education services; kids being refused evaluation for such services if the request was made orally (!); and the disproportionate impact of suspensions on special education students, whose graduation rates overall are much lower than those of their peers.

Council members seemed to have skepticism for our state superintendent of education’s office, which witnesses often noted was neither responsive to their concerns about treatment of special education students nor good with engaging parents.

At one point, chair of the education committee David Grosso noted that the most recent report of the ombudsman for education highlighted many of these and other problems, including the ills of having substitutes for the long term combined with teachers resigning. The effects of both can be devastating to at risk children as well as to special education students.

Turns out, many items in that ombudsman report came up at the Eastern high school chancellor forum I attended last week.

That DCPS forum was ostensibly to jumpstart the FY19 budget process, but it didn’t seem like the many DCPS staffers in attendance—most close to the chancellor, including Deputy Chancellor Michael Gaal—had considered the deep disconnection that preceded the forum.

For instance, participants were told to focus on four areas related to the chancellor’s strategic plan: literacy; social emotional learning; attendance; and technology. We were requested to think about what percentages for each our school and the district should allocate above and beyond our schools’ basic budgets.

Several participants almost immediately noted how difficult—and even insulting–it was to decide what to allocate such “extra” money on, since every year what should be basic aspects of a school were not funded, most especially needed staff. Some participants were associated with schools that actually took budget cuts, even if they lost no students.

Moreover, as a strategy for supporting the DCPS strategic plan, the effort fell flat. For instance, no attendees appeared to think that attendance was anything that individual schools should dedicate money to, despite its importance to city officials from the mayor on down. And like a sad echo from the budget forum weeks earlier came pleas for working computers and instructors simply to ensure children–especially those at Title I schools–have a better way to just take the PARCC test.

Such disconnects are not minor:

Despite the grotesque exercise of our city using PARCC scores as 70% of a school’s rating, special education services, technology, and social workers all can vary wildly from one school to the next, affecting (you know it’s coming!) PARCC scores. And yet, DCPS went into that chancellor’s forum with an agenda that appeared at a far remove from what dozens of public witnesses had testified about in the preceding weeks concerning the dire consequences of inadequate staffing and provisioning of our schools.

Imagine, for a moment, what might have happened instead had DCPS begun that chancellor forum last week with an answer to a simple question: if every school kept the same exact staff it has now, how much would that cost next school year?

That’s not my question–rather, it’s one that Emily Mechner, an Oyster-Adams parent and LSAT co-chair, posed to the chancellor during that DCPS budget hearing a few weeks before.

In Mechner’s testimony (which is really a must-read for any DC public school parent), she noted that unlike other city agencies, DCPS does not report out anything about its current services funding level (CSFL). Thus, each year DCPS’s budget appears to be made anew—as if nothing in our schools right now is pertinent for what will happen mere months from now.

This amazingly ahistorical exercise goes right to the heart of DCPS’s budgeting, as Mechner notes:

“I would like to see DCPS come clean right now about how its costs are going to increase from this year to next. When that budget guide comes out for the FY19 budget, how much more will be charged for a teacher, for an aide, for a principal, for a clerk? Surely, the information is already available, or will be soon. The teachers’ union contract has been finalized. The health insurance contract and benefits package costs can probably be estimated with pretty good accuracy, if not already known with certainty.

“If DCPS followed the same process as other agencies, the starting point for the FY19 budget would be to answer this: if every school kept the same exact staff it has now, how much would that cost? That should be an easy question to answer, a mere mechanical calculation based on known quantities. The CFO, and the public, should be told the answer to that question. Why does DCPS alone among city agencies not share that information at this stage of the city’s budget development? Why isn’t DCPS allowed to provide a CSFL that is consistent with its actual expected costs?”

It’s not just coincidence that in a matter of a few weeks this fall, dozens of public witnesses–teachers, staff, advocates, students, and parents–made clear that our schools’ staffing is key.

And that staffing matters way more than PARCC scores (sorry, DFER!) and whatever twisting of them into educational virtue our city officials seek to accomplish, because staffing–not test scores–ensures our kids and schools have what they need.

So, as our mayor works on her FY19 budget as head of all our public schools, be sure to ask relentlessly that very basic question:

If every school kept the same exact staff it has now, how much would that cost next school year?

We deserve an answer right now, for all our public schools.

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