The City Council meeting on the budget last week was filled with tension, anger and frustration -- most of it directed at the school board and parents who had organized an effective lobbying effort.
Council members took turns denouncing the political blackmail they felt had been used to force large increases in the school budget for the coming fiscal year. They charged unchecked waste in the school system, saying that school officials have never been held properly accountable for how they spend the money they demand each year.
Then, by voice vote, the council approved more school money for fiscal 1987 than even the school board had requested.
The action may sound inconsistent with the sentiments being voiced at that meeting, which was punctuated with shouting matches, fist pounding and hot words. But the message throughout the day was that the council may not be so willing in the future to approve large increases without more oversight or at least more answers from the school system on spending.
Each year as part of the budget process, city agencies must justify their expenditures to the City Council, which can cut money for some programs and add to others. By law the elected school board makes spending decisions for the schools, and the City Council only determines the overall level of funding.
This year, however, the council tried to take some modest steps on getting more oversight. The education committee, first of all, required monthly spending reports from the schools. And at last week's meeting, the $393.8 million operating budget included $8 million that is to be a one-time only amount for school repairs.
School Board President R. David Hall responded to the council criticism by saying that the schools have always had the highest audit ratings and that "we haven't wasted anything." City agencies under the control of the City Council have gotten "far, far more" in increases than the schools, he said. The City Council has not done a good job of monitoring those agencies, he added.
"If they have nothing else to do, they can monitor us," Hall said. "Our books are wide open. What they will find is that there is an elected board that is already doing that."
But clearly the council is skeptical. Council Chairman David A. Clarke said repeatedly that school spending needs to be monitored more carefully. When more operating funds were added on a motion by council member Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large), head of the education committee, Clarke insisted on having her put on the record how it would be spent.
This was shortly after Clarke tried to gavel down a shouting match between Mason and council member Nadine Winter (D-Ward 6) on the same subject. Mason told Winter she was "sick and tired of people asking all these questions about education when they are on the education committee." Winter retorted that she was "sick and tired of repairs not being made" to school buildings.
Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), who had proposed a plan for getting the full funding that the schools had requested, nonetheless said the "question is accountability" of the school system. "They have to prove themselves," she said later.
Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) called the school board's and parents' tactics "a stickup" that happens every year. He later told reporters he supported putting the added funds in the budget, so when the school board comes back next year it will have no excuse for not doing what it said it would.
The net result was a "vote of no confidence" in the school board, said one council member who asked not to be identified.
Several members decried the lobbying tactics as irresponsible. That lobbying included bringing thousands of youngsters to the steps of the District Building and school Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie's threat to quit.
Council member John Ray (D-At Large) said he was "offended" at "totally unfair" charges by school officials that the system was being underfunded and that those opposed to the school board's requests were against education. The city also has to try to find funds to deal with the concerns of poor people who live in public housing and other basic needs, he said.
Council member William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5) said the council was merely "reacting" to the pressure being exerted "and I'm going to react along with the rest of you." But he also said he hoped "we are approaching the point on schools that we got to on rent control," which he said "used to be . . . sacrosanct."
The council voted last year to moderate the city's strict rent control law, despite strong tenant support for the old law and ultimately a successful referendum to overturn some of the council's action.
Delabian Rice-Thurston, director of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, acknowledged that the parents decided to make a special push since this is an election year. "People are much more responsive when they are up for election," she said. The mayor and seven of the 13 council members face reelection in November.
In the end, Mayor Marion Barry tried to upstage the council on school funding the next day. Barry originally proposed a school operating budget of $380.7 million for fiscal 1987, touching off the intense lobbying campaign by school officials and parents.
The council added $13 million to that plus another $3.4 million to the school's capital budget. The mayor then announced that he had found another $3 million to put into schools in fiscal 1987, and he wanted this money to go into the schools' base budget -- something that school officials and parents had been particularly concerned about.