Reviews Mixed on Line-Item Control

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 9, 2007

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's public schools takeover plan would give the D.C. Council one measure of authority other big-city mayors held onto when they took over their school systems: line-by-line control over the budget.

The legislative bodies in Boston and New York, where mayors run the schools, get only an up or down vote. But D.C. Council members, under Fenty's plan, would be able to slash or add money for supplies, teacher salaries and textbooks.

Whether such power is a plus is a matter of debate among educators, legislators in other cities and those on the D.C. Council, where at least three members aren't sure they want it.

The case for such a move gained momentum last week when an independent audit found payments for unauthorized overtime and contracts in the schools budget. Officials said it was a reminder that the U.S. Department of Education has threatened to cut federal funding if the school district doesn't improve the way it handles money by April.

"If the revenues are not getting to where they should, and that is to the classrooms . . . it will weigh ultimately in the consideration of this council member," said Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who said he is undecided about the takeover.

Boston was one of the first cities to give the mayor control of the schools when the state legislature did so in 1991. That council does not have line-item authority. Boston Councilor John M. Tobin Jr., who heads the council education committee, says such power would be useful.

"We're not allowed to add any dollars legislatively. We're not allowed to take away dollars," Tobin said. Line-item control? "Believe me, I'd love to have that," he said.

So would New York City Council member Robert Jackson, who chairs the education committee. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R), who has become a mentor to Fenty, gained authority over the schools in 2002. "The state legislature gave him total control," Jackson said. "The mayor is the 800-pound gorilla in the room."

Fenty's plan to give the council line-item control is "excellent," Jackson said. "It forces the mayor to negotiate with the council."

Fenty said he chose this model because the District government has a mayor and council that are equals, so his plan had to reflect that system, giving the council the same authority it has over city agencies.

Currently, the District provides the school board more than $800 million for its operating budget, and the board decides what to spend it on. Under the takeover plan, the mayor and the superintendent -- whose title would be changed to chancellor -- would develop the budget and submit it for council approval, bypassing the school board. Superintendent Clifford B. Janey is against the council getting line-item control.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) worries that the council would abuse the power. "It may mean that the mayor wants a new downtown library, and to get my vote the mayor would fix a school in my ward," he said.

Education experts say line-item control empowers legislators but can also lead to micromanagement that hinders progress . City councils have often been left out of the discussion in school takeovers, said Kenneth K. Wong, director of the urban education policy program at Brown University. In recent years, none of the large cities that switched to mayoral control has given councils line-item authority, Wong said.

"Most of the time, it is the mayor that exercises control over the purse strings," he said. "Oftentimes, budget items get concealed. The city council is in a better position to hold public hearings."

The danger is that politics could overshadow education, said Michael Kirst, professor of education and business administration at Stanford University.

"This really would get the council lost in the trees and not see the forest," he said.

Chicago schools have been under mayoral control since 1995. Alderman Patrick J. O'Connor, who has led the education committee for 22 years, said a schools budget can be too cumbersome for a council to manage.

"Quite honestly, if someone came to me and said, 'We're going to give you control of the schools budget,' I would say that's the dumbest thing that you can do," O'Connor said. "Cities have enough problems with their own budgets."

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