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Schools Brace for Cuts Despite D.C. Boom

Advocates Warn of Pending Layoffs and Call for Change in Funding Formula

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page B03

The District's tax coffers are bulging, thanks to a real estate boom, and the mayor has proposed robust spending on unmet city needs. But at Anacostia Senior High School, PTA President LeRoy G. McDonald II is braced for more layoffs of teachers, guidance counselors and other key personnel.

Like other public schools across the city, Anacostia had to cut staff positions last year to relieve a systemwide budget shortfall. And based on warnings from the central school administration that next year's budget may be unable to absorb the raises provided in new union contracts, principals are anticipating another round of cuts in the next few months. Some schools have already identified the positions they would eliminate.

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The fact that schools are facing such austerity at a time when the city is flush with money shows that the District's school funding formula needs to be changed, McDonald said.

"The city needs to fully fund the [school] budget," he said. "Any type of permanent [increase] to the funding formula would be good for schools."

Many school officials agree with McDonald that the current funding system has become untenable. Superintendent Clifford B. Janey has appointed a committee that will study the issue and recommend later this year whether the system should be overhauled.

Under the current system, individual schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. The base per-pupil amount -- $6,903 this year -- is set by the State Education Office, which is under the mayor's control, and is adjusted each year for inflation. The formula is weighted so that schools receive more money for students in upper grades, in special education, in English as a second language programs or in the free and reduced-price lunch program.

The seven-year-old system, similar to those used in many school districts across the country, was designed to make funding more equitable. Before that, D.C. school advocates say, politics and connections often determined which schools got the most money.

But critics say the per-pupil amount has not kept pace with increases in salaries and other costs. Last year, schools cut a total of 527 teachers, librarians, counselors and custodians when a 9 percent raise for teachers went into effect as part of a union contract. This year, top administrators have said, contracts to be signed soon with unions representing teachers, principals and custodians may call for wage increases of about 4 1/2 percent. Despite such increases, D.C. teacher salaries continue to lag behind those of neighboring districts.

The school system, which has about 61,000 students, established a minimum payment to individual schools to ensure that those with declining enrollments would still be able to provide basic services.

Yet many schools have been unable to provide the services deemed by the system as necessary. According to school officials, 15,472 elementary students attended schools without an art teacher in 2002-03, and 12,000 were in schools without a music or gym teacher.

Some schools also have cut such key personnel as assistant principals, custodians and librarians and turned to parents to take on their duties.

"Every year you have to make these choices: Are you going to have a science teacher or an art teacher? Are you going to have a counselor or a janitor?" said Mark Engman, co-chairman of the Local School Restructuring Team at Peabody Early Childhood Center, Watkins Elementary School and Stuart-Hobson Middle School on Capitol Hill, where last year nine teaching positions were cut to make up a shortfall of $150,000.

In response to pleas for more school funding, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D.C. Council members have cited school system cost overruns and argued that school officials have not demonstrated fiscal responsibility.

Alfreda Davis, Williams's chief of staff, said yesterday that the mayor has been generous to the school system by agreeing to fund Janey's budget request and to provide an extra $21 million to upgrade science labs and establish library and media centers at all schools. Davis said Williams may be open to providing some additional assistance to help with the school employee raises but not a permanent increase in funding.

"We are fully comfortable that we have been responsive," Davis said.

School board member Tommy Wells (District 3) said the problem with the mayor's infusion of $21 million is that it will create programs without the means to staff them in future years.

"It does not make sense to bring in more funds for new initiatives if we are not increasing the funding formula," Wells said.

Mary Levy, director of the Public Education Reform Project, which monitors school improvement efforts for the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, said the prospect of additional staff cuts is troubling for a school system trying to improve its image.

"I'm quite worried," Levy said. "It's one of the things driving people out of the school system. People don't have confidence that teachers and resources will be there from year to year."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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