Rhee's '09 Budget Adds $44 Million

Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee says savings will come partly from school consolidation.
Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee says savings will come partly from school consolidation. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said yesterday that classrooms would get an additional $44 million in the fall for art and music teachers, psychologists, social workers, literacy coaches and more extracurricular activities under her proposed fiscal 2009 budget.

Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said details of the school system's $773 million budget proposal, long sought by school advocates, will be released Thursday. Money for the new initiatives will come from savings by closing 23 schools and the recent firing of 98 central office employees, they said.

Some school advocates questioned whether the school system would have $44 million for the initiatives, given Rhee's previous statements that the closings would save $23 million and the firings would reduce the payroll by $6 million. Rhee's spokeswoman said that, although she could not specify, the additional savings came from cutting some part-time employees at the schools and shifting maintenance costs from the school system to a new school construction authority.

"I have no idea where any number comes from," said Mary Levy, director of the Public Education Reform Project at the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, who has studied school spending for decades. "Until there is a budget document, I don't believe any of it."

Rhee said she will launch the "comprehensive staffing model" of additional teachers and staffers at 28 schools that are to receive students from schools that are closing. The model will later be offered for the rest of the system. Other schools in the system would get money to expand pre-kindergarten programs, which would boost enrollment by 220 students, and introduce more extracurricular activities, such as chess clubs, yearbooks and debate teams.

"This is what we heard over and over again" from parents, Rhee said at a news conference at Moten Elementary School in Southeast Washington. "They want to see the money we're spending reflected in the classroom."

Parents and school advocates said they were dissatisfied that more specifics still were not provided.

In the past, proposed school budgets became public as early as December, giving parents and teachers a line-by-line breakdown of spending. Last month, a group of school advocates took Fenty and Rhee to court for failing to release details of the fiscal 2009 budget. A judge ruled that the Fenty administration was not obligated to release the budget before submitting it to the D.C. Council because of the 2007 mayor's takeover law.

"We need school-specific details," Cherita Whiting, a parent and one of the plaintiffs, said in an interview. She said parents need the information early so they can decide where to send children to school.

Levy also argued that the savings would be offset by $110 million that officials in the D.C. Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization have said they would spend to refurbish the receiving schools, a cost that includes converting some elementary schools into buildings for pre-kindergarten to eighth grade.

Rhee said she intends to make the budgeting process more transparent. She said Noah Wepman, the new schools chief financial officer, is developing a system that would allow people to access detailed budget information on the schools through the system's Web site.

Rhee said the level of staff providing instructional and social support to students would increase dramatically, under the comprehensive staffing model. She said, for example, that the number of school psychologists would rise to 28 from 10, and social workers to 135 from 26. The funding would add 188 literacy and math coaches.

"Our children need wraparound services," Rhee said.

Deputy Mayor Victor Reinoso said the school system this spring will pilot a school-readiness assessment at 100 pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms across the city. The students will be tested on their ability to recognize letters, numbers, shapes and colors.

"We want to provide more targeted training for teachers so they can provide more help for kids and provide intervention," he said.

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