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School Budget Reflects Transfer of Some High-Cost Programs

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 21, 2008

The D.C. schools' proposed $773 million fiscal 2009 budget is garnering attention not only for the millions added for art and music classes, but for what it doesn't have -- money for special education tuition, transportation and attorney's fees, which annually created huge shortfalls.

Under Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's takeover of the 49,600-student school system, city officials have shifted to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education a total of $231.5 million in costs associated with educating about 2,000 disabled students in private schools. For years, severe overspending on tuition, transportation and attorney's fees has contributed to budget gaps, forcing the system to lay off teachers and shift as much as $54 million from classroom instruction.

Previously, the system assumed the duties of a state and a local district, essentially overseeing itself. That structure led to the mismanagement of millions of dollars in federal funds, according to the Department of Education, which designated the system a "high risk" grantee.

In the new structure, all oversight responsibilities and other duties associated with a state were transferred to the state superintendent. Another problem area -- school construction and maintenance -- was shifted to the new Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization.

By removing the expenditures for educating disabled students in private schools, "we'll have a much clearer picture of what's spent on kids" in the school system, said Mary Levy, director of the Public Education Reform Project of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

Schools Chief Financial Officer Noah Wepman said the budget proposal reflects Fenty's goal of greater government efficiency. It includes a new allocation of more than $500,000 for customer service to help parents and teachers resolve bureaucratic problems.

The proposed budget includes more spending per pupil, increasing from $8,330 to $8,770, officials said. It also includes $44 million more for schools, partly the result of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's decisions to close 23 under-enrolled schools and to fire 98 central office employees.

"There's an 89 percent increase in art teachers; 135 social workers will be in our schools, as opposed to 26 in '08," Wepman said. "We're putting more money into programs that students and parents want -- like high-tech schools and more preschool."

But Cherita Whiting, a parent advocate, complained that the budget does not detail school-by-school spending.

"We shouldn't have to wait until the first day of school to find out how many art teachers will be in the building," she said.

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