D.C. Council education committee flexes its muscles on boundaries

The D.C. Council’s education committee stepped into a looming fight over school boundaries last week when it voted unanimously to ensure that parents get at least a year’s notice before boundary changes take effect.

The measure would force Chancellor Kaya Henderson to put off the politically sensitive changes for at least one year, from fall 2014 to fall 2015.

It is just one of many ways in which the council’s five-month-old education committee has asserted itself as a force in school policy during the spring budget season. The committee’s recommendations — including the school-boundary tweak — now go to the full council, which is scheduled to discuss them Tuesday as part of a broader debate on the fiscal 2014 budget.

Led by Chairman David A. Catania (I-At Large), the committee is pushing for significant changes to Mayor Vincent Gray’s (D) proposed spending plan, including an additional $1 million for summer school, $2.3 million to limit budget cuts at schools with low enrollment and about $250,000 for a public education ombudsman to help parents navigate traditional and charter schools.

The committee also restored funds for full-time librarians at 20 schools that otherwise would have seen those positions cut to half-time.

Peter MacPherson, a D.C. parent who has been lobbying for investment in libraries, said he was thrilled by the changes. “I was giddy for about 12 hours,” said MacPherson, a vocal critic of Henderson and Gray who said he welcomes the new education committee’s scrutiny of school budgets.

“They’re definitely a new sheriff in town,” he said. “This really represents a sea change.”

Money for the popular additions came from utilities — the committee estimates that the school system will spend less than it had expected on electricity and water due to closing 13 schools in June — and from regular personnel vacancies, which reduce personnel costs over time.

The committee also proposed slicing more than $350,000 from the office of the deputy mayor for education, a key adviser for Gray on schools issues. That move would reduce the deputy mayor’s office from 11 positions to 7 — a size more in line with other deputy mayors’ offices, according to Catania.

The proposed cut highlights a growing tension between the mayor — who is responsible for public education — and education committee chairman Catania, who is often mentioned as a possible 2014 mayoral candidate, and who has criticized the Gray administration for failing to move aggressively on issues such as reducing truancy and improving coordination among charter and traditional public schools.

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said Catania’s proposed cuts would make it more difficult to make progress on those issues.

“We don’t know why he would do this,” Ribeiro said.

The education committee also threw its weight behind individual school projects. H.D. Woodson Senior High is slated to receive $135,000 for a long-promised but never-delivered science, technology, engineering and math program. Garrison Elementary, which parents fought to keep open last fall, will get an accelerated renovation.

And the committee is seeking to give $6 million to a group of charter schools that wants to start a high school for intensive foreign-language instruction. Catania said the D.C. International School (DCI)— a project of Washington Yu Ying (Mandarin Chinese), Elsie Whitlow Stokes (French and Spanish), Mundo Verde (Spanish) and Latin American Bilingual Montessori (Spanish) — needs the money to renovate its building on the campus of the old Walter Reed hospital.

“This is a very exciting project,” Catania said.

But allocating money to individual schools raises questions of fairness and transparency, said longtime education activist Cathy Reilly, who urged council members to be more clear about the criteria they use to determine which schools get funds. For example, she said, countless charter schools would undoubtedly like to receive more money for facilities, and each should have an equal shot at those dollars.

You can read the education committee’s budget recommendations here. You can watch the council’s discussion on the 2014 budget beginning at 9 a.m. here. The council is not scheduled to vote on the budget until later this month.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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