Gray budget proposal calls for D.C. school renovations, more money per student

March 28, 2013

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray is proposing to spend $1.7 billion in coming years to renovate and rebuild dozens of schools, continuing a years-long effort to upgrade city education facilities.

Among the schools slated for modernization is Spingarn Senior High, one of the 13 schools that Chancellor Kaya Henderson plans to close this spring because of low enrollment.

Gray (D) is seeking to spend $26 million to turn Spingarn into a vocational school that would train students in fields related to transportation and health.

The investment is part of what Gray described as a renewed effort to ensure that students who choose not to attend college can graduate from high school with employable skills.

“Spingarn will be a school that will start to bring back, in a real way, career and technical education in our schools,” said Gray, who presented the school spending plan to the D.C. Council on Thursday as part of his citywide fiscal 2014 budget proposal.

The mayor’s school-construction plan, which includes $350 million for 2014 alone, drew praise from council members whose constituents have been clamoring for the investment. But Education Committee Chairman David A. Catania (I-At Large) questioned whether it’s sensible to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in high schools designed for more students than they now hold.

The new Ballou Senior High, for example, is designed for 1,400 students, but the school enrolls fewer than 800. Catania suggested that shrinking the design would create savings that could be reinvested elsewhere.

Gray said the modernizations will accommodate an expected growth of school-aged children in the coming years and will help traditional high schools compete with charter schools.

The operating budgets of both school sectors would increase under the mayor’s proposal, which calls for raising the basic per-student allocation — the main source of dollars for schools — by 2 percent.

That translates into a $74 million increase in operating funds for fast-growing charter schools, whose enrollment is forecast to jump 8 percent from this year to next.

The traditional school system, which has struggled to maintain enrollment, would have a smaller increase, of about $7 million. Some parents are warning that despite the increase, their schools stand to lose key staff and programs.

The city dedicates about $2 billion of its $10 billion operating budget to public education.

The mayor said the District will continue reducing the number of special education students enrolled in private institutions at public expense, a policy that has been controversial among some parents, who say city schools aren’t equipped to educate students with disabilities and special needs.

The reduction in private placements will save $30 million next year, the mayor said, funds that will be invested in strengthening public schools’ special education programs. The council will hold several public hearings on the education budget during the next six weeks. The council can make changes to the plan before taking a final vote in late spring.

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