Fixing DCPS School Budgets (And DC Democracy) NOW

On Friday April 2, there was a (hastily called) hearing on widespread shortfalls in DCPS school budgets. Ward education councils were the only public witnesses—while the chancellor testified afterward. (To see public testimony, go here and scroll through.)

The minority of council members who attended the hearing (Robert White, Mary Cheh, Christina Henderson, Brianne Nadeau, and Phil Mendelson, with an appearance by Charles Allen about 45 minutes before the end) appeared outraged, confused, or some combination thereof at the obfuscation of the chancellor about the budget cuts, even as many schools with cuts were projected to lose few (or no) students and the trauma of the pandemic necessitates stability more than ever.

To be clear, none of what was discussed is new.

Many DCPS school budgets are cut every year, pandemic or not, loss of students or not, in the wake of which someone somewhere appears to benevolently grant more money, in total amount unknown until the very end and almost always never enough to reinstate all lost staff.

Also, as in years past, the timing of this budget process is critical, because cut staff will likely have committed to positions elsewhere before the budget process is complete.

Ostensibly to allow better accounting of the more than $2 BILLION DC is receiving in federal stimulus funds, the DC council voted on April 6 to extend the mayor’s deadline for submitting the budget to the council to May 27 (from the prior date of April 22).

This extended deadline means that the council will vote, at earliest, on the budget sometime in early August.

Which means that absent heroic action NOW, staff cut from DCPS schools in this budget are gone–despite the pleas of ward ed councils and despite a $500 million DC surplus.

And despite the mayor touting increases in the uniform per student funding formula (UPSFF) as well as special funding weights, which have occurred alongside the budget cuts.

What You Can Do To Keep Our Schools Whole

  1. Demand the mayor and council hold DCPS schools harmless with respect to budgets and staffing for SY21-22.

The DC Council can pass emergency legislation (tomorrow, if it wants) that would hold DCPS schools harmless with respect to budgets and staffing for SY21-22. Because the happily announced increase in the UPSFF would likely cover most, if not all, of the already announced staffing cuts, holding schools harmless in their budgets and staffing can be done immediately without any fiscal impact.

2. Here’s a list of council members and mayoral staff to write to with these demands now–because as this flyer shows, time is of the essence if we are to save school staff and keep our schools whole.

3. There will be a hearing on the DCPS budget, though its date is no longer May 5, but some unspecified date later. Sign up here.

4. Here’s a petition to sign if you agree that DCPS budget cuts now, during a pandemic in our wealthy city, are terrible. Petition organizers are demanding meetings with council members (after being turned down by the mayor).

5. Here’s a petition to sign to save DCPS librarians, who have been cut because librarians have now been classified by DCPS as optional. Of course, they are not optional, but central to literacy. However, classifying them as optional gives principals some leeway to staff their schools with what remain fundamentally inadequate budgets.

Read on for more actions needed around DCPS budget issues.

Fix Structural Funding Issues

This past week, in an unrecorded, practically unnoticed meeting of the council on the UPSFF increases (see screenshots of the slide deck here), the deputy mayor for education (DME) noted that there was “a lot we can be proud of” in the funding of our schools.

Which is true–if by “proud” the DME means ignoring budget advice on, and consistently underfunding, our schools.

To be specific:

According to several members of the UPSFF working group, which advised the DME on the UPSFF, members not only were not allowed to specify specific weights and increases for UPSFF categories, but what weights and increases they did recommend a few months ago appear to have been ignored in favor of lower weights and increases touted by the mayor in this current budget.

In other words, the mayor and her people have continued to not adequately fund the UPSFF and other funding weights.

Not surprisingly, every year the DCPS schools with the worst budget situations tend to be the ones serving the highest percentages of at risk students. As fundamental as it is, the UPSFF has never been a sufficient tool for DCPS schools with high need, since it doesn’t address structural issues that disadvantage high-need communities.

Nonetheless, the DME at this past week’s UPSFF meeting with the council unbelievably said that we are “overfunding” at risk students. This outrageous statement is by now old hat for the DME, given that on April 25, 2019, he testified without shame before the DC Council that we are “overinvesting” in schools with large numbers of at risk students.

(The DME doth protest too much methinks, given that the highest per student allocations in DCPS are about what he pays for each of his children to attend private school.)

As it is, the UPSFF inherently disadvantages schools of right when our city has no limit on ever-increasing numbers of new schools and seats, such that enrollment losses (and consequent defunding) are inevitable without a commensurate growth in the student population.

Making things worse, many of the budget cuts detailed at the April 2 council hearing were after schools yelled and screamed for more funds in the wake of even worse initial appropriations. The chancellor’s response to council members’ questions on that was a blithe statement that he has a special fund to help if schools would only appeal to him. It was unclear when and how that benevolence kicks in—but testimony indicated that it was entirely insufficient and available on the basis of something that remains completely obscured from public view. (One council member has since pulled the curtain back a bit on that.)

Another structural funding issue for DCPS is that charters send kids to DCPS after count day and DCPS doesn’t receive money for those (former charter) students to cover the costs of educating them. Getting that money to DCPS isn’t rocket science—someone somewhere in DC government paid charters for those kids and they can pay DCPS for them by tracking all students and clawing back those funds when necessary.

(For all the folks who think this is unfair or unAmerican or impossible, ask how many teachers could be paid, or books and digital tech purchased, with what one DC charter school (Eagle Academy, <1000 students) spent on travel (>$200,000) and on advertising and promotion (>$300,000) in 2018 alone.)

Finally, the pandemic has loomed large in every single hearing—except, weirdly, the April 2 budget hearing! While many mentioned the trauma of the pandemic, the budget cuts have been at some schools with the highest proportions of Black and brown kids whose families experienced disproportionate harm before the pandemic and are hurting the most IN the pandemic.

But instead of funding for that trauma, DCPS has been pushing re-opening, as if the pandemic is a big deal ONLY inasmuch as it needs to reopen schools or hire temporary, low-paid staff to help with it—which is ironic, given the disparities in who is seeking to send their kids back in person.

Deploy Federal Dollars For Current Staff

While it would be nice to account for the more than $2 BILLION in federal stimulus finding that DC is slated to receive, the council appeared to get no promise from the mayor’s people at the April 6 meeting that it would have much say in that, even with the budget extension. The mayor’s people claimed they were waiting for budget guidance from the feds.

But all our schools have had that guidance for more than a month now! Specifically, this (boldface mine):

“The Department will begin to make these funds available this month [i.e., March 2021] so that [schools] may act to fund health and safety measures consistent with CDC guidance, address the disruptions to teaching and learning resulting from the pandemic—especially for students hardest hit by the pandemic—and get students back in the classroom quickly and safely. . . . ESSER funds may be used to address the many impacts of COVID-19 on pre-K through 12 education, including . . . avoiding devastating layoffs and hiring additional educators to address learning loss, providing support to students and existing staff, and providing sufficient staffing to facilitate social distancing.”

Charmingly, DCPS has thus far refused to use federal stimulus money for staff—while committing to hiring low-paid (presumably temporary) staff for a variety of things, including re-opening.

Indeed, at the April 2 hearing, the discussion of using federal stimulus dollars for regular staff went pretty much nowhere. Council chair Phil Mendelson insisted that the hearing was about the budget process, as if hundreds of millions in federal money are kinda sorta nothing until some unspecified point in the far future (like fusion).

But by the time of that hearing, DCPS had already spent almost $20 million of the nearly $300 million it will receive soon in federal stimulus money. Keeping known, trusted educators now could be a good use of stimulus funds that everyone knows are on the way shortly, if not there already.

And while those funds are indeed temporary, they will be around for more than 3 years—which is longer than 50% of DCPS teachers, per many sad reports.

As it is, DCPS has no problems with one-time assistance!

The chancellor noted with some pride during the April 2 hearing the one-time budget assistance he gave Walls last year–not to mention his publicly opaque annual assistance fund.

Save The Comprehensive Staffing Plan

While it cuts school budgets every single year, just as often DCPS blames the comprehensive staffing model–as if ensuring equity is just too darn expensive.

But back in reality, the comprehensive staffing model was created to deal with huge inequities from school to school and to provide a basic minimum education everywhere (yes, I am using language from the Detroit court case decision).

At this juncture, it seems necessary to say that, at a minimum, we need to guarantee that every one of our DCPS schools will have a librarian, special ed coordinator, nurse, social worker, science teacher, arts teachers, PE instructor, foreign language instructor, English, math, and social studies teachers, and a principal—and, for schools with any number of English language learners, teachers for them, too.

Absent budget changes now, however, many DCPS schools will lack at least one of those positions in SY21-22.

Demand The Real Budget Ask

Because the chancellor did not have an answer on April 2 to the perfectly reasonable question of how much would it cost to restore all the lost staff positions at DCPS schools, let us indulge in a little speculation.

DC budget analyst Mary Levy has calculated that it would cost about $8 million to stop DCPS staff cuts.

If we back out the 2.2% buying power loss Levy also calculated, that suggests another $16 million is needed to cover that loss in buying power (i.e., 2.2% out of a total of $815 million she noted was allocated to DCPS). 

So, one could say that to cover all DCPS staff losses AND loss of buying power, $24 million is needed directly for all DCPS schools (i.e., not central office).

Fascinatingly, $16 million about equals the (new) UPSFF for those 1500 students DCPS calculated it would lose in SY21-22!

So to keep staff, make schools whole, and not inflict more trauma, we need the following:

–DCPS must hold its schools harmless with respect to budgets and staffing, while adjusting for inflation in SY21-22.

–All SY20-21 staff should be retained for SY21-22 and buying power increased for a total ask of $24 million for DCPS.

–Anything not covered by the UPSFF of that should come from the hundreds of millions DCPS is expected to receive in total from the federal government.

–DCPS should commit to increasing stability at schools by using the rest of its federal monies to keep valuable, trusted staff in SY21-22 and beyond, not to hire temporary, low-wage, and untrained workers (especially as the federal government recommends using “trained educators as tutors” during the school day).

–Instead of building budgets anew at each school every year (as if our schools never existed before), DCPS should plan for stability, by holding school budgets exactly the same from year to year, making a cost of living increase, and adjusting for enrollment, but never dropping by more than 2%.

Demand Better Representation

With mayoral control of DCPS, this whole blog post is really about demanding better representation.

Consider that back on December 2, when the council held a hearing on re-opening (as opposed to the chancellor just announcing fall re-opening days after the death of the head of the Washington Teachers’ Union without any teacher input), there was a bit of weirdness regarding public witnesses.

Some people had signed up early to testify—only to find themselves excluded from the hearing, which also featured people who had signed up later and were allowed to testify.

So I requested from the DC Council via FOIA a timestamped witness sign-up for the hearing.

But there was none.

The reason given was that the council’s education committee (which held the hearing) doesn’t exist anymore–and thus the sign-up sheet doesn’t, either! (Yeah.)

This inaccessibility is mirrored in the inaccessibility of performance and budget oversight documents given to the council in this period—presumably, because no specific committee presides over education.

For instance, you can go to the committee of the whole’s link to oversight documents for this period, but not only will you not get the entirety of the documents, but you will find that some of them are nonsensical and unreadable PDFs of spreadsheets that remain publicly inaccessible.

OTOH, if you go here, you can access education agency performance oversight documents for this term!

Nothing is yet available for the current budget oversight documents—and good luck with finding any of this on your own. (Someone took pity on me.)

Here are prior years’ council oversight documents for DC education agencies:

2020: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/4zccap5u88cw1cn/AACzonVAHuJ2vN37k-pQPe-Ca?dl=0

2019: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/ontbjkp1y9c5cz2/AACEP5s4LH0mgjayE7eoVm0va?dl=0

2018: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/e68pc2y4ag4oruf/AADfgcbhyHauJkpTcbryPG3ma?dl=0

NONE of these prior years’ documents are hosted by the council. Rather, they are held by the former head of the council education committee, David Grosso. If he decides to one day deep six this electronic record, well, bye bye!

The irony here is pretty thick:

During the April 2 hearing, council chair Phil Mendelson (who theoretically presides over all education agency oversight) remarked that active parents, stable staff, and robust budgets make for good schools—then went on to apply an analogy that schools are just like businesses.

So, what does that make the council? Does it have no role in keeping accurate records for us “customers” and us “shareholders” of all the stuff done in our name, with our money? Imagine, for a moment, a bank that refuses to provide statements of your own money–except to its board. Privately. That’s what this essentially is.

BTW, here’s again that list of elected officials –while writing to them to hold DCPS schools harmless with respect to budgets and staffing for SY21-22, you may want to also give them a little jingle about the meaning of the term “public servant.”

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