Extra School Funds Sought

Among other funds, Mayor Adrian Fenty, with Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee on the first day of classes, wants $2.5 million for bills dating to 2005.
Among other funds, Mayor Adrian Fenty, with Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee on the first day of classes, wants $2.5 million for bills dating to 2005. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008

The Fenty administration wants to divert $15.2 million from several District agencies to cover a series of extra expenses in D.C. schools, including unpaid bills dating back to 2005 for textbooks and custodial supplies and nearly $9 million in private school tuition for special education students whose needs can't be met by the city.

Without the money, the school system will be over budget for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) assumed control of the school system last year, in part to bring managerial order to a bureaucracy notorious for squandering money. City officials described the request for funds as a sign of progress in cleaning up past mismanagement.

The money is expected to come from two sources, according to a July 30 memo to the D.C. Council from William Singer, the District's chief of budget execution. One source will be agencies that have saved money in salaries due to unfilled positions, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of the Environment. The other is extra cash from a series of accounts devoted to paying off bond debt, leasing equipment and paying interest on short-term borrowing.

Fenty's office originally filed the request with D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) on July 31 but withdrew it two weeks later because of a technical error. City officials said it will be resubmitted for approval by the council by Sept. 15.

More than half of the funds are needed to meet the steadily rising costs of special education. The District will spend more than $200 million this fiscal year -- up from $138 million in 2001 -- on private school tuition and transportation for 2,400 children with learning or behavioral issues that the public school system cannot address. The system has 9,400 children in special education.

Since 2006, the District has been under a federal court order to eliminate a backlog of more than 1,000 decisions by hearing officers calling for children to be placed in private schools.

City officials said they have winnowed the caseload significantly, reducing the amount of time between a hearing officer's decision and private placement.

Ira A. Burnim, an attorney who represents plaintiffs in the class-action suit Blackman v. District of Columbia, agreed that the city has improved its service to parents seeking help for their children.

"They now respond in a fairly timely way," Burnim said.

Mary Levy, a school budget watchdog for the Public Education Reform Project of the Washington Lawyers' Committee, said the funding request reflects poor planning, not progress.

"The city has a long history of underfunding tuition and transportation," she said. "And there's usually a crisis when projected expenditures end up being larger."

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