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Posted at 08:00 PM ET, 04/13/2012

Gray freezes, then thaws, charter school payments

Did the Gray Administration try to hold a $100 million-plus quarterly payment to charter schools hostage in its dispute with the D.C. Council over the supplemental budget bill?

It seemed that way for a few hours on Friday. D.C. Public Charter School Board Executive Director Scott Pearson said he was informed by State Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley’s office that the payment, due next week, would be frozen pending resolution of the supplemental spending measure. This sent a flutter of alarm through the charter community, where many schools run on tight budgets that depend on prompt payment of the quarterly installments.

The bill includes $7 million for the charter sector to cover larger-than-projected enrollment of special education students and summer school costs. The council has had questions about the payment, as well as Gray’s proposed $25 million supplement to DCPS to cover overruns in food service and other programs. It is due to take up the bill Tuesday.

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro initially insisted that there was no money available for the regular quarterly payment unless the council acted on the supplemental.

“We have told the council for weeks there are spending pressures that need to be resolved,” he said. “The supplemental has been down there [before the council] for a couple of months now.” Ribeiro said chief financial officer Natwar Gandhi has sent numerous letters to the council urging action.

“There’s no money in the checking account,” Ribeiro said. “The CFO won’t let you bounce a check.”

This sounded mighty peculiar, given that the quarterly charter payments are based on per pupil allotments under the uniform funding formula. Why would a dispute over $7 million hold all of that up?

It’s also not quite what Gandhi said. His April 11 letter to Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown states: “I recommend that the total pressure of $7 million be addressed now so that the District can meet the required April 15 quarterly payments and the July 1st payment for summer school.” That’s a little bit short of saying that the charters get nothing without council action.

But that’s how the message seemed to resonate Friday.

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown weighed in, essentially saying that the whole thing was a flimsy attempt to muscle the council into acting.

“It would be irresponsible and inaccurate to lay the blame on the Council for the administration’s decision not to make the fourth quarter payment to charter schools in a timely manner,” Brown said in a late afternoon statement. In fact, he said, it was entirely the mayor’s call.

“The CFO has not been given the authority by the administration to make a fourth quarter payment to the DC Public Charter Schools. The Council strongly urges the Mayor to immediately authorize the CFO to make the fourth quarter payment,” Brown said.

Around 6 p.m., after consulting with whomever, Ribeiro called back to say that the charters could receive their regular quarterly payment, just not the supplemental piece --unless and until the council acted.

By  |  08:00 PM ET, 04/13/2012

 
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