Record Funding Boost Likely for Schools
Sunday, February 5, 2006
The D.C. Council is expected to approve the biggest school funding increase in city history after months of pressure from more than 1,000 parents, educators and activists galvanized by the decision to pay millions for a new ballpark.
Long rebuffed in their pleas for more money for decrepit public schools, frustrated parents said they were outraged when the mayor and council agreed in 2004 to spend more than $500 million on a baseball stadium, a price tag that since has risen. Over the past year, groups across the city banded together to form a single, powerful lobby focused on forcing city leaders to do for schoolchildren what they agreed to do for Major League Baseball.
The campaign appears to have worked. On Tuesday, the council is expected to give preliminary approval to a bill that would devote an additional $100 million a year -- $1 billion over the next decade -- to school modernization, enough to complete a systemwide overhaul. Although debate continues over how to fund the measure, council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) said passage is all but assured, and a spokesman said the mayor intends to sign it.
In addition to a large and disciplined grass-roots movement, a variety of other factors helped propel schools to the top of the council agenda, activists and political analysts said. Polls show that education is by far the most important issue to D.C. voters at a time when seven of the 13 council members are running for reelection or higher office. Three are competing to replace retiring Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), including Cropp and the bill's author, Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4).
The city also has a huge budget surplus and fresh confidence in Clifford B. Janey, the superintendent of the school system, which has had an abysmal record on renovations.
"It was a nice harmonic convergence," said Matt Wuerker, a Woodley Park activist whose son attends Woodrow Wilson Senior High School. "Oddly enough, it was the baseball stadium that gave us a new element of leverage. . . . Baseball, ironically, created the political opening for schools."
The contrast was stark. After years of deferred maintenance, many of the city's 147 schools are in appalling condition. The buildings -- 73 years old, on average -- have leaking roofs, stopped-up bathrooms, ancient lighting and air-handling systems that leave classrooms freezing or stifling.
In 2000, the school board adopted a $3.5 billion plan to renovate every school by 2020. But annual council funding never hit the $300 million goal, and the plan fell apart after several projects came in over budget. By the time baseball came on the scene, the mayor was proposing to drop the school renovation budget to just under $100 million.
At the same time, Williams proposed building a state-of-the-art baseball stadium with luxury skyboxes and views of the Capitol. A new tax on business would be used as collateral for revenue bonds. The deal brought the former Montreal Expos to Washington but quickly became a political lightning rod, viewed by some as potent evidence that city leaders cater to the privileged. The city is working to control costs of the stadium project, now estimated at $667 million.
In September 2004, voters booted three council members who supported the stadium deal. After much public hand-wringing, the council approved it that December, days before the new members took office.
Fenty, planning a run for mayor, voted no. Afterward, stadium opponent Ed Lazere remembers telling him that the deal easily could provoke a backlash.
"I said, 'The progressive response to this ought to be, if you can issue bonds for a baseball stadium, you can issue bonds for schools. So let's do a big bond for schools,' " recalled Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.