Under Pressure, City Shows Spending Plans

By Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Fenty administration revealed fiscal 2009 D.C. school spending plans yesterday after a group of school activists argued before a D.C. Superior Court judge that the public should see the proposal before a budget hearing next week.

In a hearing before Judge Stephen F. Eilperin, eight school activists, led by Marc Borbely, argued that by law they were entitled to a copy of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's budget in advance of a hearing scheduled for Tuesday at Woodson High School.

The activists filed a lawsuit Thursday against Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) demanding that Rhee submit her budget yesterday or that the budget hearing be delayed until mid-March.

The budget documents released by the city do not provide a full explanation of the spending plan, but they do show that Rhee wants to expand the Saturday Scholars program from elementary and middle schools to high schools, extend the school day at 23 schools, including those that have failed to meet requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, create a principal leadership academy and launch a student recruitment campaign.

A staff attorney initially defended the school system, but Interim Attorney General Peter J. Nickles appeared later to argue the case. He said the advocates were asking Rhee and Fenty to comply with laws that applied to the former D.C. Board of Education.

Under the mayoral takeover, Nickles said, the school system is like other city agencies, which generally do not make their budgets public before submitting them to the mayor.

"The law in question is not a model of clarity," Nickles said. "When the mayor and the D.C Council overhauled the system, they left some things at loose ends," he said.

Eilperin said school governance changes did not eliminate the public's right to have a voice in the preparation of the school system's budget.

"The chancellor says, 'These are my ideas,' and the public is entitled to see what those ideas are," Eilperin said.

Eilperin denied the request to postpone the budget hearing. But in response to the judge's concerns, Nickles gave the judge and advocates a 46-page document with school system programs and spending codes and a two-page cover sheet titled "FY 09 Proposed Initiatives." The documents, dated yesterday, represent all of the budget submissions that Rhee has sent to the mayor, Nickles said.

Cherita Whiting, a parent and Ward 4 education leader, said the documents were is not adequate because they have no details on how individual schools would be funded. The judge and education advocates also questioned whether the information Nickles provided constitutes a full budget submission. That issue is scheduled to be argued Feb. 27 before Judge Judith E. Retchin.

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