Improving middle schools is one of the D.C. school system’s three main spending priorities for next year, Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced Tuesday night, kicking off a budget process that she said has been redesigned to be more collaborative and less contentious than in the past.
The other two priorities are lifting achievement in the system’s 4o lowest-performing schools, probably through longer school days or a longer school year, and increasing students’ satisfaction with their schools by addressing complaints ranging from bullying to dirty buildings.
Henderson said she wanted to share her thinking about the budget now — months earlier than usual — to elicit feedback from parents and communities, who have long complained that they feel left out of major spending decisions.
“We don’t want to be at odds,” Henderson said, speaking at an annual budget hearing that officials have generally used to listen to testimony but not to share information. “Our desire and our intention and our commitment is to do this process differently.”
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who was in the audience Tuesday, said the public should expect the school system’s budget — long criticized as opaque — to be more transparent. “I don’t want anybody to feel like they don’t have enough information,” he said.
School system officials usually wait until spring — when they get an overall budget allocation from the mayor — to share details with schools about the following academic year’s spending plan. That gives parents and principals little time — sometimes only a matter of days — to react to and challenge decisions that can have a dramatic impact on programs and offerings.
Now Henderson and her staff have laid out a timeline meant to share more information earlier with parents, schools and education advocates.
Schools will get enrollment projections and preliminary budget and staffing allocations in January. The preliminary numbers may change, depending on the District’s revenue and the fate of legislation that would send schools extra money to educate at-risk children.
But Henderson said that schools will have baseline numbers from which to begin planning, and that officials will pass on additional information as soon as it becomes available.
In the meantime, officials have set up an online survey and discussion platform to hear parents’ input on the three priorities Henderson laid out Tuesday.
Fewer than a dozen people signed up to testify at Tuesday’s hearing, which parents said was not widely advertised. Those who testified spoke about the need for renovated buildings, a commitment to protecting schools from major budget swings and investments in the kind of academic programs that will attract families and help the traditional system compete with growing charter schools.
Several parents testified about their frustration with past budget cycles.
“I’m going to be excited to see how this process is different than previous ones,” said Laura Marks, a Capitol Hill parent.
Last year’s budget was built around new scheduling requirements at elementary schools, which were meant to ensure that all students received a minimum amount of instruction in math, language arts, foreign language, art and physical education.
Now Henderson wants to bring that philosophy to the middle grades, identifying and funding a basic set of academic offerings that should be available to all students in grades six to eight.
In the following year, the focus will be on ensuring a basic set of offerings at all high schools, she said.