Rhee Says Budget Formula Change Will Bring Art, Music to Schools

Michelle Rhee. (File Photo)
Michelle Rhee. (File Photo) (Sarah L. Voisin - The Washington Post)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 26, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has scrapped a funding formula introduced in the late 1990s to bring more transparency and public participation to budget deliberations, replacing it with a system that critics say diminishes the autonomy of individual schools.

Rhee says that the funding method, known as the "weighted student formula," has not served many schools well, placing too much power in the hands of principals. Her alternative, she said, will increase transparency and help her make good on a core promise: to provide every D.C. school with art, music and physical education teachers.

Dismay over changes in the formula is part of a broader unhappiness with the development of the 2008-09 budget, the first on Rhee's watch. Information about the proposed allocation of money, usually available to the public in February, was posted only a week ago on the D.C. Public Schools Web site.

"I am just astounded by the profound lack of transparency," said Margot Berkey, a parent at Wilson Senior High School and chairman of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools.

Parents active at schools say the delays in disclosing budget information place them at a significant disadvantage in helping make decisions about staffing and programming for the fall. This month, under pressure from school advocates, the D.C. Council rejected a proposal by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to eliminate legal requirements for annual hearings on the school budget. Hearings are now expected to be held.

All of this has spawned concerns about openness and Rhee's interest in asserting more control over decision making that has traditionally taken place at the school level.

Rhee's new system has perplexed parents in some schools because staff positions have been added or subtracted with no apparent rhyme or reason.

At Langdon Elementary in Ward 5, for example, the preliminary budget devised by Rhee's staff sets aside $118,000 in salary and benefits for a new assistant principal's position while cutting the number of full-time teaching positions from 27 to 21.

"From our viewpoint, we want to invest in teaching," said Mary Melchior, a Langdon parent and member of the Local School Restructuring Team.

Rhee said there has been no attempt to usurp power or conceal information. She acknowledged that the budget cycle is "definitely running later than we would like it to be" and blamed the delay on the school system's former chief financial officer, Pamela D. Graham, who left the post in March.

"We didn't have the capacity we needed. We'll be on a much different timeline next year," Rhee said.

Graham, who still works for D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, said Friday that Rhee's characterization was not accurate. She said completion of the 2009 budget was slowed because much of the work was done by an outside management consulting firm, Alvarez & Marsal, which has also worked for the New York City schools system. Graham said a lot of key information was not shared with city officials.

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