Hey, It’s Budget Season (And Other Recent Unpleasantries)

February has been busy for our schools, whether with bomb threats; a different sort of high school disruption (engineered by a billionaire with a 30% failure rate!); a lawsuit brought by former DCPS principals fired for opposing harsh treatment of students; a series on sexual misconduct at Duke Ellington HS; and a new DCPS budget model and budget (which together appear to be doing exactly what our mayor and her deputies say they are not doing, per this excellent analysis by DCPS parent Betsy Wolf).

Despite the ongoing pandemic (yes, covid’s still with us–pace, twitter trolls), the mayor rescinded vaccine and mask mandates for DC businesses—even with evidence that such an action is both unhealthy and unpopular. Naturally in a nondemocracy, the DC council followed suit, with a majority refusing to sign on to (or, for the shy members, to voice support for) emergency legislation that would have reinstated the vaccine mandate.

So, let’s march on with upcoming hearings at the DC council and a few informational recaps:

March 2: performance oversight for all DC education agencies, public witnesses
March 3: performance oversight for all DC education agencies, government witnesses
March 10: hearing on DCPS middle school in center city
March 11: hearing on bill 24-428 and improving school attendance
March 14: hearing on legislation for safe routes to school and walk without worry (bills 24-565 and 24-566, respectively)
March 28: budget oversight for all DC ed agencies, public witnesses
March 30: budget oversight for all DC ed agencies, government witnesses

(See the entire schedule for oversight hearings here.)

DCPS Budget: Not What It Seems

After the mayor’s triumphant announcement of unprecedented levels of funding for our publicly funded schools, some DCPS schools communities found themselves in the typical holding pattern of staff cuts without enrollment loss (see here and here for two examples). In the meantime, schools with the poorest students are being hit even harder–something that recent analysis by budget expert Mary Levy (as well as the above-linked analysis by Betsy Wolf) suggests is by design.

The chief problem appears to be a typical DCPS bait and switch, wherein schools are effectively receiving less money than the prior year, so cuts are being covered by either one-time funds or at risk money, violating the spirit (if not the law) of sound budgeting as well as deflecting blame for the misuse of at risk funds on to desperate principals and LSATs (and not the actual folks responsible, DCPS and the mayor herself).

There’s also been little to no explanation of what DCPS means by “growth schools,” while funds to “hold harmless” and to “stabilize” our schools are the same as what is called “recovery” money–and all of that money is local (i.e., not federal covid relief money) and of uncertain duration and calculation. There is also (still!) no detailed accounting of federal covid relief funds in our schools, even though DC is free to spend that money through 2023.

So, gear up for a bumpy fiscal ride for the next few months–and be sure to avail yourself of useful budget information and hacks from C4DC.

Playing Catch-Up With Covid

Yes, Virginia, we are still in a pandemic—and we still have no KN95 masks for all kids in our schools; all HVAC repaired; or even robust virtual options or tech for all (although there has been some handwringing about the cost of missing tech).

Happily, DCPS finally coughed up some data on which schools have covid coordinators, after a legislator’s push.

In addition, DCPS has released some testing data—albeit not entirely in compliance with the protecting our children act, which expired on January 24. And DCPS has released preK rapid test data as part of its weekly testing regime for preK students. (Should be interesting to see if data on DCPS’s planned test to return after the February break mirrors what occurred after the test to return following Xmas break.)

In the meantime, because we are still in a pandemic, here’s a good read on why mask and vaccine mandates work—and provide assurance of equity.

Installing A DC President

In less than 20 minutes at the beginning of its January 19 meeting, the DC state board of education (SBOE) voted in Ward 6 rep Jessica Sutter as its next president. She won on the second round of voting, after receiving the fewest votes (of three candidates) in the first round.

But Sutter’s was no come-from-behind victory. Rather, it was planned.

As confirmed by Ward 2 rep Allister Chang; Ward 4 rep Frazier O’Leary; and Ward 7 rep Eboni-Rose Thompson, those three representatives worked out well ahead of the vote that they would vote for Frazier O’Leary in the first round and, if he didn’t win outright, would switch their votes to Jessica Sutter in the second round.

To a person, they cited to me as a reason for their votes Sutter’s ability to run meetings well and get the work of the board done.

None mentioned that Sutter was endorsed by DFER—as was Chang.

When I noted to them that in my experience as a Ward 6 resident, Sutter has not supported Ward 6 DCPS schools well and in fact refused to sign a petition last year asking DCPS to hold school budgets harmless, the three SBOE reps who engineered Sutter’s victory each had different reactions: silence (Chang); amazement (O’Leary); and a statement that the board doesn’t deal with school budgets (Thompson).

Not surprisingly, the day after winning that office, Sutter testified in a council hearing (on legislation to hold DCPS school budgets harmless) that such an action would constitute DCPS “double dipping”–and that charters should get the money instead.

So expect a year’s righteous lack of support for a by right system of schools from the SBOE bully pulpit–engineered by three folks who apparently wanted efficient meetings more than supporting DCPS schools.

In the meantime, maybe the DC council will see fit to endorse legislation to allow DCPS employees to run for SBOE, which current law prohibits them from doing (but not charter employees—naturally). This is not merely a matter of democracy but also leveling a playing field. Right now, candidates whose private businesses depend on the public money in our publicly funded schools (like Sutter, in fact–or reps Patterson and maybe Chang, too, for that matter) are inherently incentivized to run for SBOE to ensure the stability of their personal stakes—while facing no competition from the largest group of people in our schools actually doing the work of our schools (i.e. DCPS teachers).

The Mystery of the DC Research Practice Partnership

On March 15, the advisory committee to the DC education research collaborative (otherwise known as the research practice partnership, or RPP) will meet at 6 pm. Registration is here.

Recall that the advisory committee exists as an independent body to advise the collaborative and set its research agenda around data from DC’s publicly funded schools. The current 20 members of the advisory committee were appointed by a variety of elected and appointed education leaders in DC, including the mayor and council chair.

There are several, uh, interesting aspects of the advisory committee:

–There was an attempt in December by the council chair, Phil Mendelson, to declare the advisory committee a nonpublic body, which would have meant that its meetings and materials would not be available to the public.

–The first meeting of the advisory committee did not take place as originally slated, in early December, because the chief counsel for the DC office of open government (under the board of ethics and government accountability (BEGA)) advised the executive director of the collaborative that she had proceeded in setting a meeting for the advisory committee in violation of the independence of the advisory committee. The chief counsel also noted that in his estimation, the advisory committee was a public body—and thus needed to abide by the open meetings act in terms of public notification and public access to its meetings.

–The organization overseeing the collaborative, the Urban Institute, has created another body associated with the advisory committee that doesn’t appear to be mentioned in either the authorizing legislation or Urban’s MOU for the RPP with our state superintendent of education (OSSE). That body, the “research council,” appears to be a loose confederation of research entities that will be meeting with the advisory committee, per Urban’s policy program manager Alexandra Tilsley. Tilsley noted to me via email that “the full collaborative” is the advisory committee and the research council (who knew?). She also noted that they expect that “most” meetings of the advisory committee “will involve both groups, since both are critical to the work, but it’s possible the advisory committee will want to have its own meetings, as well.” She went on to note that the “research council does occasionally have its own meetings to discuss administrative matters,” but because it is “an independent, non-governmental entity, these meetings are not public.” She noted that “we anticipate decisions about what projects to pursue and how to approach them will be made in conjunction with the advisory committee in a public setting.”

–This two-body meeting structure was apparent in the first meeting of the advisory committee, on January 26—at which council chair Phil Mendelson (yes, the man who wanted to make the advisory committee meetings private) was in attendance. Given that organizations in the research council have an inherent stake in the research that the advisory committee may authorize, this two-body meeting structure would seem to effectively undermine the independence of the advisory committee. And that’s not getting into the fact that people on the advisory committee who are not professional education researchers themselves may be in a relatively poor position to push back within a meeting against organizations or researchers who want access to valuable DC education data for less-than-obvious research purposes. (Though for all anyone knows, that may be the entire point of this exercise: to ensure access to public school data by private organizations that have been—without any public metric—asked to be part of the research council.)

–Adding to the mystery is the fact that one of the members of the advisory committee has not yet been publicly named. The committee consists only of 20 members now—not the 21 the authorizing legislation calls for.

So be sure to tune in to the March 15 meeting of the RPP advisory committee–and hope that the DC public retains the ability to do so for the rest of the committee’s meetings (slated for April 25, June 2, August 3, and September 13), because the chief counsel email on the subject is not an official opinion of BEGA, and our council chair has not indicated that he is done trying to make the advisory committee private.

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