The Long, Hot Summer . . . Budget

–At the July 15 meeting of the Ward 6 public schools parent association (see here for the video, passcode 5O!h!69Z), DCPS chancellor Ferebee noted that every DCPS school will have a full-time nurse (starting at minute 8:35). The chancellor also weighed in on school librarians (starting at minute 10:25):

“Schools from my view have already received their budgets for this year and we’ve allocated those positions to schools. If schools made a decision to repurpose the funds from their school librarian positions, we’ve allowed that flexibility. It’s been a part of our budgeting and allocation structure for some time. However, it’s under review. But I don’t anticipate making changes to that structure at this time. . . . There’s definitely tension around that topic. I think it’s a push and pull between honoring school autonomy, and I want to make clear that schools make decisions with school leadership and a local school advisory team. It’s not a principal’s decision solely. It’s a collaborative effort. And DCPS has had the benefit of school autonomy in their resources and I think it has helped us be a nimble and responsible organization.”

This is utterly fascinating inasmuch as the chancellor is effectively saying that

1. no matter what money comes to DCPS now, he’s not going to give it out for librarians (take that, council members thinking about adding $3.5 million to DCPS’s budget to ensure all schools have a full-time librarian!)

and

2. the decision to ax librarians is merely DCPS allowing “flexibility” (which seems to resemble the “flexibility” inherent in poverty: rent or food? shoes or medication? Choices!)

and

3. the decision to ax librarians is “collaborative” inasmuch as principals do it with the knowledge of advisory bodies, which no matter how opposed to it have no power to stop it. (See note about “flexibility” above.)

Given the long history of DCPS not using earmarked funds for the purpose the council intended, and bearing utterly no consequence for that misuse (at risk funds, anyone?), don’t hold your breath that librarians will be hired for all DCPS schools anytime soon even if the council coughs up $3.5 million specifically for that purpose.

–The July 22 DC council hearing on school re-opening featured a plethora of elected officials, parents, and teachers expressing skepticism about re-opening while DC covid cases keep rising; no one has mandated covid vaccinations; no one knows exactly how many school employees are vaccinated; and many DC teens remain unvaccinated for both covid as well as other diseases, while cases among DC youth soar.

The hearing also made clear that no one has any well-developed idea about how to ensure all students can learn from home if needed–and how quarantining, messaging, and safety will be handled, including how DCPS students can safely eat in school cafeterias (as the plan right now is) instead of their individual classrooms.

To be sure, some of this uncertainty is due to the very fluid nature of the pandemic at this juncture—to wit, the increasing likelihood of vaccinated people not only getting sick but also transmitting covid alongside the rapid spread of a highly contagious variant.

OTOH, the push for in person learning continues unabated from seemingly every level of DC government. The office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE) has promulgated a form that demands doctors sign off that a student “requires” virtual learning before students are allowed to participate in virtual learning. Doctors have naturally been wary of signing off on such a demand.

As a result of this administrative hurdle, only a small handful of DCPS students have been permitted to avail themselves of virtual learning. Exactly how few students came up in questioning by council member Janeese Lewis George (see video starting at hour 3, minute 14).

Specifically: Out of more than 50,000 students, only 38 DCPS students had applied to be all-virtual—with 50% being denied permission.

Yet, two charters were recently approved for virtual programming, in a special meeting of the charter board that appeared designed to occur with enough time to ensure the schools would be able to set up the programming before the start of school.

Indeed, that July 26 approval appears to be part of a charter loophole identified by council member Christina Henderson at the hearing, starting at hour 4, minute 21. Specifically, OSSE guidance permits charter families to not apply with OSSE for permission for virtual instruction, as long as the specific charter school has already been authorized to provide virtual instruction.

Fascinatingly (or naturally), OSSE itself was not at the hearing to defend its rulemaking—or to provide safety guidance.

–And speaking of carefully crafted (charter) loopholes:

In a July 1 budget support act (BSA) report, on behalf of the council’s committee of the whole (COW), council chair Phil Mendelson opined that the budget up for DCPS from the spring was, well, unfair to charters. 

Recall that at the end of April, the mayor added $14 million to DCPS’s FY22 budget, to essentially ensure “that no DCPS school will experience a reduction in their FY22 budget, and that all schools will have a FY22 budget that at least matches FY21 funding levels.”

But page 135 of the July 1 COW budget report says the following: 

“While the Committee supported the Executive’s eventual move to make school budgets whole, the Committee is concerned about the Executive potentially providing future stabilization or other funds to DCPS schools outside of the UPSFF [uniform per student funding formula]. By law, the District is required to provide equivalent funding through the UPSFF to both DCPS and the charter sector, and if operating funds are provided outside of the UPSFF, the Executive is required to fund and provide funding to the charter sector. These same funds were provided to the charter sector. Thus, the Committee recommends limiting the stabilization authorization to provide stabilization funding outside the UPSFF to Fiscal Year 2022 to ensure that the School Reform Act [SRA] is not violated.” 

On July 19, the Coalition for DC Public Schools (C4DC) emailed Mendelson, noting that this reasoning is a misinterpretation not merely of how DC public school budgeting is done, but also of home rule (italics mine): 

“Charter advocates brought a lawsuit in federal court claiming the DC Council did not have authority to make any changes in the SRA or funding formulas, but their arguments were rejected by the federal district court. On appeal . . . the federal appellate court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction, stating that there was no federal issue because the SRA is a local DC law that should be construed by DC local courts. . . . The Council clearly has such authority and has modified the law and made equitable funding adjustments in the SRA dozens of times since its enactment, often at the request of charter advocates. . . . At the heart of this is the idea that all operational funding of DCPS and charter schools must flow through the UPSFF. . . . But that has never actually been the case nor is it required. Both DCPS and the charter sector receive funds outside of the UPSFF for operations. This has been the case for many years, including in the current budget.”

C4DC received no response from the council chair.

Ironically, on July 7, the mayor herself (!) took issue with a section of the COW’s proposed legislation that provides for more than $5 million in stabilization money for DC charters that have suffered enrollment losses in the pandemic.

Noting that this funding would “likely create fiscal challenges for the District, establish problematic precedent for future years, and undermine the fundamental concept that public charter funding is tied to enrollment,” the mayor’s July 7 letter to the council outlined the importance of the “fiscal responsibility” of charters by tying their funding to their enrollment. The letter also counseled that “overpaying public charter schools for students who did not enroll will adversely impact the overall charter sector budget” and that the DCPS stabilization funds were “a tool for the District to provide continuity within the school system of right and ensure the District can provide educational services in all geographical areas of the District.”

On July 20, Mendelson issued another COW report on the budget, which outlines (in Title IV, subtitle A) that DC charters are exempted “from receiving funds allocated through the UPSFF for the purposes of stabilizing DCPS school-level budgeting to meet the requirements that the school be provided with no less than 95% of its prior year allocation for Formula funds.” The report outlines that the stabilization fund for charters would go ahead as well.

The COW’s proposed budget legislation from July 20 also includes an annual increase of 3.1% for per pupil funding for charter facilities, starting in FY24. Both of the COW reports justified this by noting that increasing construction costs often strain charter finances. (Never mind that as a sector, DC charter schools are annually banking a good amount of money (see table 1 here), some of which they profitably have invested with city leaders.)

But something in the proposed legislation remains curious: charter per pupil facility payments are to be “multiplied by the number of students estimated to attend each public charter school to determine the actual facility allowance payments to be received” (boldface mine; see the original here).

Either that is a typo—or the council chair has decided it’s cool to let charters determine how much their per pupil facility allotments are, all the while worrying over whether giving DCPS money to right-size individual school budgets violates the SRA.

Though the council chair is hardly the first to embrace budgetary speciousness regarding DCPS funding and charter parity, the pretext is nonetheless pretty rich:

Recall that DC charters literally spent years in court trying to prove that they were being cheated of money relative to DCPS. (They lost—twice: see here and here.) Then, just this past week we learned that the pool at DCPS’s Roosevelt high school has been made inaccessible to the public because of the (misguided) belief that charters should receive the same amount of money that would make the Roosevelt pool accessible.

(Funny how no one is simultaneously demanding that the pool at Eagle Academy—also built with taxpayer funds—be made available to the public or DCPS students, even though DC crafted an agreement that Eagle would pay no rent for the former DCPS school it occupies with the understanding that it would provide other (nonschool) services to the public, which last I checked weren’t being provided. What’s good for the goose stays with the goose, apparently.)

The final votes on DC’s FY22 budget are slated for August 3 (the actual money) and August 10 (the BSA).

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