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

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.

"In fairness to the chancellor," Graham said, "there was a major transition, and she was still pulling together what her strategy would be."

The most significant change is elimination of the weighted student formula. For the past decade, public and charter schools in the District have been funded in two ways. A uniform per-pupil rate, currently $8,770, is established each year to cover all school system operations. Under the weighted formula, money from that pot was distributed to individual schools, with adjustments to account for numbers of students from low-income families, limited English-language skills or other special needs.

Local School Restructuring Teams, advisory bodies of parents, teachers and staff, would confer with principals on how the money should be used. An LSRT might want, for example, to keep class size down by hiring more teachers and making do with fewer employees such as librarians, attendance counselors or office staff. Those recommendations would be negotiated with the principal and forwarded to the central office. They were often approved.

The per-pupil formula is still in place. But Rhee has replaced the weighted system with a series of staffing requirements for elementary, middle and high schools. Every school's total staffing budget will be kept the same or increased based on enrollment projections, with an average increase of about 3.2 percent, according to information from Rhee's office. Officials said Rhee's plan provides for art, music and PE teachers -- and in some cases numeracy and literacy coaches -- in schools that have not had them for years.

The weighted formula was introduced in 1998 by then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, in an effort to ensure that budgets more accurately reflected the needs of individual school populations. It replaced a system in which the central office presented budgets to schools based on projected enrollment.

Some parents and school advocates are concerned that Rhee's new approach is a step backward to a time when budgeting decisions flowed from the top down, and not necessarily on the basis of children's needs.

"I don't know why we would want to go back to something that didn't work before," said Mary Levy of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, an expert on D.C. school budgets.

Rhee said the change was a bid to bring more equity, especially in schools where limited parent involvement has placed most of the power in the hands of principals. She said that when she examined the finances of some schools without art or music instruction, it was evident that money was available but was funding other jobs or programs.

One elementary school principal, who requested anonymity out of concern for alienating Rhee, said principals in schools with weak parent communities would lose influence under the new staffing system. Those with strong LSRTs, the principal said, would be able to negotiate with the chancellor's office to get what they wanted.

It's not clear what ability schools will have to challenge budget decisions. A recent PowerPoint presentation by school officials to LSRTs said that only in "rare cases" will schools be allowed to petition for changes to staffing allocations. Rhee said last week that that is not the case.

"The schools have the ability to come back and say no," she said. But the chancellor's office will have the final say.

Other experts say the District's weighted system has not worked as originally intended. The elementary school principal said it placed smaller schools at a disadvantage because they could not generate enough money through per-student allocations to pay for programs.

A 2005 study of D.C. school finances by the Council of the Great City Schools found "equity concerns across the District" with the formula.

"There was a fair amount of politicking behind it," Executive Director Michael Casserly said. "It got pushed and pulled and tugged on and it led to a formula that didn't have much impact. I'm not surprised that Chancellor Rhee would want to start over."

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