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Most Want to See D.C. Spend Its Surplus on Schools

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page DZ05

If current estimates hold and the District ends the current fiscal year with $162.8 million more than it expected, city residents have a few ideas for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and the D.C. Council about how the money should be used:

Schools. Schools. Fix some potholes, hire more police, but most of all, improve the schools.

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"Give it to the school system," said Vanessa Anthony, interviewed last week outside the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse. "Clean the school system up. Buy supplies for schools, books, hire more qualified teachers, and we need a lot more [General Equivalency Degree] programs."

"The schools are raggedy," said Kevin Richardson, who was also outside the courthouse, adding that students need new books and computers. The city, he urged, also ought to invest in more affordable-housing programs, and "that should take care of most of [the surplus]."

"Spend it on kids in the school system," said Darlene Allen, who was waiting at the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. "The schools are in ridiculous shape -- roaches and rats in the bathrooms. They're always out of toilet paper, soap, and the faucets run cold water. That's where that money needs to be spent. The school cafeterias need to be cleaned up. . . . If maintenance people aren't doing the job, fire them and find somebody who can do it."

About three dozen District residents, waiting to renew driver's licenses, serve on juries or conduct other city business last Thursday and Friday, had plenty of opinions about what to do with the robust budget surplus.

Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Ghandi told the council last week that a booming real estate market has produced more property tax revenues than projected. The news immediately prompted calls by some for property tax relief and increased spending on government services -- choices that are now in the hands of council members and the mayor.

D.C. residents didn't seem to want to wait for official action.

"They should put [the money] into the school system and libraries," said Steve Robinson. "They need to renovate all the schools, for one thing. The restrooms are in bad shape, the buildings need to be improved. The libraries need to be open when people want to use them."

Robert Magill said school maintenance is an ongoing need. He is in favor of some property tax relief, as well, but urged city leaders to "stay on top of what may be an uptick in crime."

Cliff Bowen, waiting patiently at the DMV, had a mental list at the ready.

"More police and better schools. More books, computers, more modern school buildings," he said. "We probably need more [police]. . . . Police are on every corner in Georgetown, but in other areas where they are needed, they are not always there. Road repairs, more parking, but those are side issues. If kids don't have good schooling, the problems are going to compound."

Foster children need help, and not just with emergency placement, said Diane Barney, a foster mother. She suggested that better funding for group housing and drug treatment for addicted parents would go a long way toward keeping children in their own homes.

"That way we could cure some problems. Solve some problems, so we could stem some of these crimes," she urged.

Tom Dybdahl, a lawyer, urged city leaders to make the D.C. jail "a decent and clean and livable facility. I think they ought to upgrade the staff and pay so it's a humane situation." The District needs a prison of its own, he said, instead of shipping incarcerated residents to prisons in other jurisdictions.

And, he said, "Do everything we can to improve schools instead of locking people up."

Others voiced support for fixing potholes, repairing vandalized buildings, adding shelters for the homeless, improving recreation for youth, and increasing medical care for the uninsured.

Valerie Price, a single mother who managed to buy a home in the Shaw neighborhood around Fifth and P streets NW, urged tax relief for longtime residents. "Pay my homeowner's taxes," she said. "We need that. My property taxes have escalated in the last three years, and I don't know how much more I can pay."

James Greene, who was moving back into the District after a few years in the Virginia suburbs, credited the D.C. government with improving its auto inspection program. He said he zipped through in only 30 minutes, a vast improvement from his experience several years ago. More funding could alleviate remaining annoyances, he said.

Yunola Campbell, who kept an eye and occasional hand on her three young children in the DMV waiting room, said the city should work on its schools, streets and health care.

She had one more piece of advice: "Put up a little bit for a rainy day."

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