Funds Don't Go for Books, BoilersBy Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 1997; Page A13
The coup de grace came in November, when Washington's financial control board ousted the superintendent, demoted the school board and installed a retired general and a board of trustees.
But, in fact, the management of the public schools already had collapsed of its own dead weight.
Dozen of school roofs leaked, boilers didn't work, and broken pipes filled basements with water. Officials handed out massive contracts without competitive bids. And thousands of school employees did not work where the records said they did.
Despite a number of good schools and bright students, 40 percent of the city's high school students drop out between the ninth and 12th grades. And a control board study concluded that the longer students stayed in the city's public schools, the greater the gap between their test scores and the national average.
"The control board documented the pervasive nature of the problem," said Bruce K. MacLaury, chairman of the D.C. schools board of trustees. "Nothing we've seen since then casts doubt on their assessment. Everywhere we look, things are broken."
Many urban school systems are starved for cash, and inner-city children, struggling with poverty and violence, often face greater challenges than suburban children do.
But poor management, rather than lack of money, fed the decline of Washington's schools, say control board analysts, former school board and current council members. For much of the last two decades, Washington had as much money as any urban school district in the United States.
In its report on the city schools -- "Children in Crisis" -- the control board noted that Washington spends $7,655 per student, more than any other U.S. city save Newark. And Newark's schools, by most measures, are in even worse shape than Washington's.
Baltimore spends $5,697 per student. Cleveland spends $7,072. Charlotte spends $5,058, and Montgomery County spends $6,562.
The problem, say many longtime critics of the school system, is that officials routinely diverted money intended for capital repairs and for aid to the schools' neediest children and used that cash to fuel more hiring.
Such past practices now hobble schools Chief Executive Julius W. Becton Jr. and the trustees, who find themselves with a shrinking budget and few dollars for capital repairs even as they try to revamp the curriculum, buy more books and replace roofs.
Administrative staffs grew to be three and four times as large, per capita, as those of surrounding school systems, audits and control board studies show. And by the autumn of 1996, fiscal management of the schools was in such a shambles that officials failed to spend $2 million set aside for repairs, even as a judge shuttered eight schools because of fire code violations.
In September, the National Science Foundation also revoked a $13.5 million grant because the city's school officials hadn't offered required training and had left much of the money unspent.
The control board's takeover of the schools contained the elements of a genuine tragedy. The first school board election in 1968 had taken place amid much hope: It was the city's maiden voyage into home rule -- Marion Barry was a member of this first board -- and the schools seemed a fitting symbol of the city's future. Also, the early fiscal and personnel management of the schools was regarded as strong.
By the early 1980s, however, the school bureaucracy had grown by thousands of employees, spending had spun out of control, and academic performance had begun its slow slide. And even Mayor Barry (D) argued that the schools had far too many administrators and more money than they needed. The problem, he said, was performance.
"The schools weren't an outgrowth of the problems in the city; they were the model for those problems," said Jim Ford, who worked in the schools for years before serving for several years as staff director of the D.C. Council's Libraries and Education Committee. "Federal dollars started to flow into the schools, and jobs just came out of nowhere. And the more it became an employment center, the more it hurt the kids."
Becton has been the chief executive of the school system since November. He has vowed to dismiss some school principals this summer and to rigorously evaluate every teacher within the next two years. The trustees voted to close 11 underused schools this summer and plan to hire a chief academic officer.
Teachers administered new, up-to-date basic skill tests to students in the spring, and the trustees are busy developing more rigorous academic standards.
"We are moving on many many fronts at the same time," MacLaury said. "There's progress, although it's not always visible."
That said, vast problems remain. Years of neglect and mismanagement left the school system with a mountainous $2 billion backlog of repairs and construction. And the D.C. Council has rejected Becton's proposed master repair plan, terming it a compendium of poorly thought out ideas.
Personnel records, too, remain a problem.
A report by the control board, which was created by Congress to restore order to the city's troubled finances, said in May: "Recent data show that at least 228 [school] employees are assigned to locations that do not officially exist and for which there are no budgets."
Another report, prepared for the trustees, noted that the D.C. school system still has more mid-level administrators than it needs. The schools, for instance, have 400 percent more staff members, per capita, working on contracts than do neighboring school districts. Yet it takes far longer to process contracts in Washington.
And officials have pushed back several deadlines for producing a report that documents where every school employee works.
"There is no evidence that the culture has changed at all," said Mary Levy, public education project director for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. "There's a very thin veneer of new management, and the rest is the old crew that got us in trouble in the first place.
"If they don't move soon, and if things don't start getting better, we're going to see a continuing outflow of people" to the suburbs, Levy said.
MacLaury cautioned against excessive pessimism and argued that the view in a couple of months could be more encouraging.
"It's a new broom," MacLaury said. "I have confidence that we will be able to get a grasp on this."