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Posted at 03:41 PM ET, 01/05/2012

Charters challenge fairness of $21 million to DCPS

DCPS got an early Christmas present last month when District Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi revised his revenue forecast to include an additional $42.2 million. Mayor Vincent C. Gray quickly announced that he will ask the D.C. Council to appropriate half of it to the city’s 123-school system to cover “spending pressures”--the polite term for cost overruns--in the current fiscal year.

As for the stockings of the city’s 53 public charter schools, Gray left not a candy bar or sensible pair of socks. This is not unusual, despite laws and regulations that seem to require public and public charter students of similar grade level and need to be funded equally through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula.

These rules would also seem to cover money from supplemental appropriations, such as the one announced last month. But when there is extra cash for education in the middle of a fiscal year, it almost always goes to DCPS.

“One emergency after another, onetime payments year after year. It’s untenable,” said Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools. “We understand that there are financial pressures at DCPS, and we’re not suggesting that the mayor not meet them. But there are also pressures in the charter schools.”

Edelin and other charter advocates find this latest supplement especially objectionable because it comes from Gray, who has said repeatedly that charters are full partners in the city’s public school system. It was on Gray’s watch as chairman in 2010 that the D.C. Council created the commission that is now studying equity and uniformity issues in school finance.

“This is the way it has traditionally been done,” said Gray spokesman Pedro Ribiero when asked about the supplemental funding. He said that as D.C. attorney general, Peter Nickles wrote an opinion advising then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty that he was not obligated to share supplemental appropriations with the charters.

Ribiero said Gray has asked D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan to revisit the issue.

Ed Lazere, chairman of the D.C. Public Education Finance Reform Commission, said that while the law seems to call for charters to get a cut of any money designed to serve student needs, it needs to be more explicit.

“There isn’t a lot of clarity,” Lazere said. “The Uniform Per Student Funding Formula is intended to be uniform and intended to be the main source of funding for students. But there is nothing in the law currently that prevents mid-year appropriations, either to DCPS or DCPCS that are not uniform...It is a legitimate policy question that the commission needs to take up.”

DCPS said the extra $21.4 million budgeted by Gray is needed to address several issues: Congressional cuts in federal payments ($4.5 million); overruns in food service caused by higher labor and food costs and lower federal reimbursements ($10.7 million); mandated merit-based salary increases for teachers ($2.8 million); and the rising cost of excessed non-instructional employees who were removed from school budgets but are being carried on the central office books.

Privately, senior Gray administration officials said DCPS finances have historically been plagued by cost overruns, attributable to persistent overspending by school system leadership and weak oversight by Gandhi’s office. The senior officials, who asked not to be named so they could speak candidly, said Deputy Mayor for Education De’Shawn Wright pushed for the recent reassignment of George Dines, the Gandhi deputy overseeing DCPS. Gandhi’s new point person at DCPS is Deloras Shepherd.

David Umansky, Gandhi’s spokesman, vehemently disputed suggestions that Dines was pushed out.

“Absolutely not true,” he said.

By  |  03:41 PM ET, 01/05/2012

 
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