Rhee to Seek $17 Million More For Schools in the Next Budget

By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee plans to propose a $794.6 million budget for fiscal year 2009, a nearly $17 million increase over this year's local budget.

The school system's current budget is $778 million, not including federal funds. It received a one-time supplemental payment of $81 million from the D.C. Council last month, bringing its local funds to about $859 million. With federal funds, the school system's total budget is almost $1 billion.

Under Rhee's proposal to close 23 schools, she has pledged to add several academic programs next year, including science and math offerings, citywide magnet programs and early childhood programs. Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) have said the school consolidations could save the system as much as $23 million.

The potential savings from consolidations is one issue being debated by opponents of the closings plan. The Coalition to Save Our Neighborhood Schools, a group made up of parents and activists who held a protest this month, plan a "Stay-Out" for tomorrow morning at the school system headquarters.

"We're looking for justice," said Maria P. Jones, a member of the group and a parent at Burroughs Elementary in Northeast, which is being targeted for closure.

Rhee spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said yesterday that it is premature to comment on "what will and won't be included" in Rhee's first spending plan before it is submitted to Fenty in mid-February. "The chancellor is committed to expanding and introducing new programs and implementing a comprehensive staffing plan at schools receiving students from consolidated schools," Hobson said.

Additionally, Hobson said, Rhee will look to other sources. "The chancellor is committed to raising external funds to support key initiatives," Hobson said.

School finance expert Mary Levy said that, without more details on the spending plan, it was difficult to know how education officials decided how much money it needed to accomplish their academic goals.

"What is the [$794.6 million] based on? Does it start from the ground up with what the schools need in the classroom? Or is it simply dividing up the existing pot?" asked Levy, director of the Public Education Reform Project for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

By law, the mayor must hold a public hearing on the proposed schools budget before he submits the budget request to the D.C. Council.

Since last month, the 49,600-student system has been under tight spending guidelines after school finance officials and private auditors projected a deficit in this year's school budget. Rhee and Fenty announced a systemwide hiring freeze and reductions in spending on equipment and supplies.

In a Jan. 17 e-mail, Jes¿s Aguirre, director of school operations, told principals to trim spending on supplies, contracts and equipment and to use federal funds when appropriate. The system was looking to save $3.8 million through that effort, Aguirre wrote.

"Clearly, any reduction in your ability to expend these funds has the potential to impact your ability to operate effectively," Aguirre wrote. "We are committed to ensuring we have a process in place that will balance this while meeting our very real need to reduce expenditures."

Hobson said that spending requests were being reviewed on an individual basis so that classrooms, especially at schools that have failed to meet academic targets in reading and math on standardized tests, won't be adversely affected.

Meanwhile, Fenty is slated to announce today an education initiative in a news conference that will include Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, and State Superintendent Deborah A. Gist.

Each year, Gist makes a recommendation to the mayor and D.C. Council on how much money the city should spend to educate each public school student. The spending figure for fiscal 2008 was $8,322 per pupil, which applies to students in the school system and at the city's 56 charter schools. In years past, Gist has called for increases in per-pupil spending, but those recommendations were never reflected in final city budgets.

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