By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009
The District's budget problems will force its public schools to trim as much as $40 million in spending by the end of October, prompting teacher layoffs and, in some cases, increasing class sizes, Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee announced Wednesday.
Rhee said she did not expect any disruptions to major academic programs or course offerings. She also said she could not yet specify how many of the city's approximately 3,800 classroom teachers would lose their jobs.
She said the moves are the result of a shortfall created when the D.C. Council made additional cuts to the fiscal 2010 budget in August. The council had to close a projected $666 million shortfall over the next three years caused by declining tax revenue.
"The unanticipated budget shortfall will be challenging," Rhee said in a statement. "No budget reduction is taken lightly, but every school reduction will be made in the best interest of students."
The District's public school budget is approximately $760 million.
Rhee said she will not be able to give specifics until later this month, after principals work with administrators and parent groups at each of the district's 127 schools to determine how they want to absorb the budget cuts at each site.
Even with reductions in non-personnel spending, a $40 million budget cut is likely to deliver the biggest hit the city's public school teaching corps has taken since December 2003, when school officials dismissed 545 employees to balance the system's operating budget.
Rhee's announcement at a late afternoon news conference, where she was joined by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), met immediate criticism from Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker. He questioned how "unanticipated" the school system's spending issues could have been, given the broad indications of the District's financial problems over the past six months.
"The manner and timing of the mayor's announcement at best reflects extreme mismanagement and a lack of transparency," Parker said in a statement.
Parker questioned the wisdom of the District's decision to hire 900 teachers over the summer, despite obvious signs of financial distress.
Rhee said school principals were free during the system's "open hiring" period in early summer to fill vacancies, adding that she did not anticipate the August reductions by the council.
"At that time, we did not know we would see this" budget cut, Rhee said.
The announcement comes a week after what was thought to be good news for the school system: that enrollment had reached 44,397, just shy of the projected 44,681.
Schools are funded by an allotment per pupil, which makes enrollment numbers critical. Rhee said Wednesday that because of the budget shortfall, even schools that reached their enrollment projections will face cuts.
Schools that fell short of projected enrollment will take a double hit. Class sizes in some under-enrolled schools might increase, she said, as teacher reductions force the consolidation of some classes. They will lose funds through budget cuts and the annual "equalization" process that the District employs to match school staffing with enrollment after the school year starts.
Some parent leaders expressed disappointment with the announcement, especially after Rhee and the D.C. Council sparred during the spring over budget and enrollment estimates.
"I hope it is not another round of political or budgetary gamesmanship between the chancellor and the council," said Terry Lynch, vice president of the School Without Walls home and school association. "If cuts are, in fact, made, every school's leadership group should be involved in deciding what gets cut in order to minimize the harm to our children's education."
District law allows Rhee to make reductions in the teaching force without regard to seniority or other factors. She said that the first few weeks of the term have allowed principals to see their new instructors in action and that all personnel would be evaluated on the basis of performance and the needs of their schools.
"Every staff member will be on equal footing," Rhee said.
Parker said Rhee's approach will feed continuing suspicion that she has targeted veteran, high-salary teachers for removal.
"This is something that we as a union are going to be looking at very, very carefully," he said, especially with an eye toward possible "age, racial or sex discrimination."