Parents, activists say chancellor’s budget undermines D.C. schools

Budget cuts that Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has proposed would undermine traditional schools that are struggling to improve and to compete with charters, according to parents and activists who testified Wednesday before the D.C. Council.

“It’s the ‘Hunger Games,’ school edition, ensuring a slow, resource-starved death for schools,” said Valerie Jablow, one of several Capitol Hill Cluster School parents who spoke against the cuts.

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Members of the council’s education committee appeared sympathetic to the complaints.

“I do not support and will do everything I can to reverse these destabilizing effects. I reject the notion that we cannot do better,” said the committee’s chairman, David A. Catania (I-At Large), who said he was particularly concerned about middle-school cuts.

The squeeze comes in part from a revised approach to projecting the number of students who will enroll in each school. Funding is based on those projections, and in recent years, officials have consistently anticipated more students than actually showed up for class.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said that this year he felt an obligation to set more realistic enrollment targets, which means many schools will receive less money.

Stuart-Hobson Middle School, which is part of the Capitol Hill Cluster, will have to cut Spanish as a core subject, according to parents protesting the reductions. The school also stands to lose a librarian, technology teacher and two special education teachers.

The school’s enrollment this year is 371 — nearly 50 students short of projections, according to budget documents. Next year’s enrollment is projected at 375, which will translate into a loss of about $500,000 from its budget.

“People are going to the charters because they feel we are being abandoned,” parent Marc Smith said.

Parents described being blindsided by a decision to broaden the definition of “small schools.”

Small schools — which receive less funding for librarians and other non-instructional staff — are those with fewer than 300 students. That threshold is rising to 400, a change that will affect more than two dozen schools.

Schools spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said that raising the small-school threshold will help add 250 classroom teachers to the system.

“We made a deliberate decision this year to invest in classroom and related arts teachers at elementary and education cam­puses,” she said.

The changes come as Henderson gives principals less latitude in spending and scheduling decisions. That approach is meant to funnel more of the system’s $818 million operating budget into instruction and to ensure equitable offerings at schools across the city, schools officials said.

All elementary schools are required next year to offer foreign language, art, music and physical education, although many of those positions will be part time in small schools.

Not all parents are thrilled by that mandate; to meet it, their elementary schools might have to cut other programs.

Middle and high school advocates said the focus on younger children leaves older students in schools with large class sizes and few electives.

Henderson did not testify Wednesday. She will field budget questions from council members at a hearing on May 2.

 
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