Ding. Ding. Ding. That's the sounding bell for the next round of school budget battles.
D.C. education advocates have scheduled a public meeting on the proposed $773 million 2009 school budget, seeking to air their concerns about what they consider the lack of transparency in the process and to give parents instructions on how to press the D.C. Council for more funds for their schools.
The upcoming meeting, set for April 2 at Florida Avenue Baptist Church, illustrates the spirited and contentious nature of this budget process this entire year, with school advocates fighting Mayor Adrian Fenty's administration and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee battling her former chief financial officer.
Last week, after losing a court fight against Fenty over release of the schools' fiscal 2009 budget, advocates finally got to lay their eyes on the figures for school spending when Fenty released the city's budget.
Entering the fray is Noah Wepman, the newly appointed schools chief financial officer.
Wepman, 34, replaced Pamela Graham, who resigned amid a months-long battle with Rhee. In an unpublished quote from a recent interview with The Post, Rhee expressed dismay over a congressional order, stemming from the financial control board days of the late 1990s, that gave the city's independent chief financial officer -- and not a schools chief -- authority over school spending.
"I would absolutely say that I do not have right now what I need to be able to effectively run this school system," Rhee said.
"...I mean we literally have circumstances where especially toward the end of the fiscal year, vendors were coming to me and saying you owe us $2.4 million. And when I went to look into it ... there's no budget line item for it," she added. "And when I brought people together from procurement and the CFO's office, they sort of pointed their fingers at each other saying that it's their fault..."
Wepman, who worked six years as a budget official for the school system and the District government, said he hopes to avoid the longstanding conflict between schools chiefs and school CFOs, who are appointed by the city CFO. Last fall when he worked for City Administrator Dan Tangherlini, he assisted Rhee in devising a budget for some $80 million in supplement funds she sought from the council to plug a projected deficit in the fiscal 2008 budget.
"The chancellor and I have a very good relationship," Wepman said in an interview in his office at the school system's Northeast Washington headquarters.
"I have a good understanding of where she wants to take the school system and what reforms she has in mind," he added. "We're all on the same team."