Springtime For DC Schools: Begging, Diamond-Encrusted Door Locks & An Independent Commission

Billed as only for government witnesses, the city council’s April 19 DCPS budget oversight hearing also featured public witnesses who had been unable to testify during the DCPS budget hearing for public witnesses, held over spring break.

(Minor aside: Despite a petition to move that DCPS public witness hearing, the city council moved only the charter board hearing out of spring break.)

During that April 19 hearing, nearly all the DCPS public witnesses related poignant tales. Perhaps most notable was a 5th grader at J.O. Wilson Elementary, who testified about not being able to go to classes because her school has lacked an elevator for years, and recent knee surgery confined her to a wheelchair and crutches. (The school is slated to get an elevator in 2025.)

After that testimony, J.O. parent Gail Sullivan used her 3 minutes (well worth a look; see here) to ask council members if they had to walk up the steps every day and carry their desks to their offices. Sullivan concluded her list of facility needs at J.O. Wilson with a simple question:

“Why are we constantly begging?”

She got no answer. But the query could have been asked as well by council members.

For instance, in a discussion about the strengths and pitfalls of the DCPS staffing model, at large council member Robert White noted that the interim chancellor’s statement that no school lost funding in FY19 is not the same as not losing staffing–which many witnesses testified about with respect to their schools’ proposed FY19 budgets.

As with so much in our public schools, however, the conversation eventually came down to real estate, with many witnesses testifying about persistent unmet facility needs. Ward 8 council member Trayon White spoke of the effect of closures of Ward 8 DCPS schools and the decrepitude of those remaining (Malcolm X, specifically). And education committee chair David Grosso mentioned that some schools have been forced to pay for their own swing space through their renovation budgets (really, still?).

Grosso also pointed out (as he had during the April 11 hearing for the deputy mayor for education) that the most recent capital improvement plan had school renovations on it that had literally just appeared there, without passing muster of the PACE Act Grosso created, to prioritize renovations and depoliticize their funding. He questioned why facilities in wards 2 and 3  (Stoddert, Key, and Deal) were given that money (really, still?). After the discussion, an apparently frustrated Grosso wondered (yet again in a public hearing) whether he needed to sue the executive to ensure the law was followed.

[Confidential to David Grosso: Think of this situation as an inexpensive and relatively fun way to experience being a public school parent in DC! After all, I have often asked, as a parent whose kids were affected, how city agencies and personnel get away with stark inequities in our schools and not following the law, all the while kids and their schools suffer. But unless I invest my own money in doing so, no lawsuit is going to happen. You, at least, get to use other people’s money for that purpose. Good luck.]

Perhaps the craziest moment during that April 19 hearing revolved around door locks.

As you may recall, at both the performance oversight hearings in February for the deputy mayor for education (February 13) and DCPS (February 21), public witnesses discussed the fact that doors in their DCPS schools lack locks, such that an active shooter could not be stopped. At the February 21 hearing, Grosso offered to put the locks on the school doors himself.

The same offer was made at this April 19th hearing, by at large council member Robert White, in this tete-a-tete (see video at 2:43:44) with Deputy Chancellor Michael Gaal:

Robert White: On the school locks, it seems like a basic and important issue. Deputy Chancellor Gaal, I didn’t hear: the number of schools that don’t have the ability to lock their doors?

Michael Gaal: It’s 50.

White: Fifty. OK. And the cost for that is $15 million?

Gaal: That’s correct, that’s our initial estimate.

White: Are these diamond-encrusted locks?

Gaal: I don’t have a comment on that. But I see your point.

White: It doesn’t make sense to me. . . . Even if every door in the schools had no ability to lock, it would not cost $15 million. I would ask that you go back to DGS or whoever gave you this and get a better understanding of that cost. Alternatively, I guarantee if I tap out a message on Facebook right now we can get this done for $1 million in a month.

Although Interim Chancellor Amanda Alexander promised to get Robert White more details, none have been provided as of this writing. So, in their absence, I did a back of the envelope calculation:

Say that each of those 50 DCPS schools lacking door locks has about 400 students. That would mean there would be roughly 20 classrooms in each building. Assuming that all of the classrooms needed locks as well as 5 other doors in the building, that would mean that each school would need about 25 locks. That works out to about 1,250 door locks. Dividing that $15 million estimate by those 1,250 locks works out to more than $12,000 a lock.

Hey, nice locks!

The question now is: do we need an independent commission to figure out what those locks are made of?

After all, just this past week, WAMU ran a report noting that both Mayor Muriel Bowser as well as council chair Phil Mendelson (both of whom are running for re-election) want an independent commission to review DC public schools.

What makes this proposal somewhat odd is that our city has already paid for an independent commission to review all our publicly funded schools—which resulted in the PERAA report! Whatever happened with the recommendations arising out of that report—you know, a data warehouse, with actual data from our charter schools as well as DCPS; regular independent evaluations of all our schools (yeah, not just DCPS—sorry); and centralized monitoring of disparities in learning and opportunities available for all students?

Hmm.

I also tried to find out whether this proposed new commission would be investigating all publicly funded schools or just DCPS—but alas! None of the staffers I emailed and phoned with that question replied.

Hmmmm.

Now, we know any such commission would not be just for our charter schools, as our city education leaders often gravely intone that we cannot do anything about our charter schools because our charter schools are run by, um, space aliens or funded by Russians (or something something something freedom). Never mind that our charter schools educate nearly half of DC’s students. And never mind that for the first time ever, DC charter schools will receive more in payments directly to students than DCPS schools. (Yeah—check out Figure 14 of this FY19 analysis by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. BTW, how’s that charter lawsuit coming alleging inequity in payments to DC charter schools?)

So, seeing as I’m not about to get any answer to my question about the proposed independent commission, let us posit that it’s just for DCPS.

In that case, isn’t that an admission that mayoral control (and/or the oversight of this mayor and council chair) isn’t exactly working? That is, why would people who have spent years in roles central to DCPS governance want to advertise their apparent failure at said school governance as they run for re-election to those same roles?

Hmmmmmmmmmm.

So maybe this proposed independent commission is for all DC’s publicly funded schools, both charters and DCPS. In that case, we really don’t need it because we already know how things are going for all our schools–badly.

Oh, it’s not me saying that—it’s the beloved test scores that we are beholden to (well, beholden at the behest of DFER and Friends).

In the end, maybe it’s not surprising that I never got a reply to my query. After all, we already have an agency that can do this education review work—it’s called our office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE).

(You know–the place where we spend hundreds of millions annually to track how our students and schools are doing.)

All Phil Mendelson and Muriel Bowser would have to do to get their truly independent commission is to sign a little piece of paper saying OSSE is now under the authority of the elected state board, while ensuring that the board is publicly funded and thus not able to be unduly influenced.

(You know, that charming little thing called democracy–otherwise known as not having wealthy individuals and/or private groups control election outcomes.)

Yet, even as fiscally conservative (and dare I say democratic!) as that option is, there’s even a cheaper way to ensure better school oversight.

It’s called an election.

And unlike functional school buildings and an independent OSSE, taxpayers and parents don’t even have to beg for it this year.

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