D.C. School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie surprised school board members yesterday with a $459 million budget that she called "austere" and a board member called "troubling."
McKenzie, who is leaving office this winter to become an education consultant, proposed a 1989 budget that offers no new programs, slows progress toward smaller classes and devotes 80 percent of its new dollars to salary increases for teachers.
The new budget asks the board, D.C. Council and Mayor Marion Barry for 6.6 percent more money than the current $430.5 million spending plan. The increase is well under those that McKenzie has requested and fought for in recent years.
"It's just a puzzle to me why she would come off so conservative in her swan-song budget," said school board member Bob Boyd (Ward 6). "It's troubling. I would have thought she'd really go for it on her last budget."
McKenzie did not return calls for comment on the budget yesterday. Her office directed calls to Acting Associate Superintendent Patsy Blackshear, who said the budget "reflects some of the needs of the school system. The budgets never account for everything we need."
In a letter introducing the budget, McKenzie said that "it can best be categorized as both a stabilization and maintenance effort, since no major new service costs are included in the request."
Board members were especially surprised by McKenzie's austerity considering their views on reducing class size and the overwhelming support voters showed this month for a school funding ballot initiative. By nearly 4 to 1, District voters approved that initiative, which declares education funding to be "of the highest priority."
"The people have spoken," said board member Wanda Washburn (Ward 3). "I know the city has financial problems. That's the city's problem, not ours. We need to continue reducing class size and improving our response to the poor conditions of so many school buildings."
School board President R. David Hall (Ward 2) said the board will probably increase the 1989 budget beyond McKenzie's request. "Maybe the superintendent sent it in low anticipating that we would reflect what the people want," he said.
Also, board members said they were unhappy that public hearings on the budget, which begin Thursday, were not announced until yesterday. The hearings, which are to be held at the board's offices at 415 12th St. NW, will be Nov. 19, 23 and 30. All hearings will begin at 7 p.m.
Parent groups said the short notice gives them little time to prepare a detailed response to the spending plan.
"We need time to complete our analysis," said Roderic Boggs, counsel to Parents United, the city's major school activist group. "But at first glance, this is a rather parsimonious document. To fulfill their campaign promises, the board needs to continue making classes smaller. The city's finances are no reason for this; austerity comes after you provide quality public education."
The new budget is a "direct result of Mayor Barry's urging that all city agencies make significant cuts" in their budget requests, McKenzie's letter said.
After public hearings, the school board will consider McKenzie's budget, change it to its liking and pass it on to the D.C. Council. Then, next year, the budget must be approved by the mayor and Congress.
City Budget Director Richard C. Siegel declined to comment on McKenzie's spending plan, saying he had not seen it.
The city announced last month that it was facing a shortfall of more than $106 million in this year's $2.6 billion budget. Siegel said the city had not devised its overall spending goal for fiscal 1989, the year for which McKenzie submitted her most recent budget.
The McKenzie plan includes new spending in these areas:
Teacher salaries. The board has pledged to make District salaries more competitive with those of suburban districts, which have attracted a number of D.C. teachers in recent years.
The average teacher salary in the District is $33,797, which is second highest in the country, but starting teachers still lag behind those in the suburbs. Because negotiations for a new pact with teachers are under way, no specific raises are spelled out in the budget. But the plan sets aside $22.9 million of 1989 money for raises. The teacher contract expired in September.
Class size. Last year, the school board added almost $8 million to McKenzie's proposed budget so enough teachers could be hired to reduce the average class size in first and second grades from 25 pupils to 20.
Members then pledged further cuts in class size throughout the system. But McKenzie's new budget provides for smaller classes only in third grade and only in schools with large populations of "at risk" children, a category of students who have fallen several semesters behind in reading and mathematics test scores.
The new reductions in class size are to cost $765,000.
Writing initiative. McKenzie's major new program this year, an all-level emphasis on writing skills, would expand. Sixteen schools would join the 58 that already have an IBM computer lab program called Writing to Read. Cost: $491,000.
Athletics. In response to public concern about the system's difficulties in attracting students to athletic teams, McKenzie proposes to spend $373,000 "to improve the coordination, management and monitoring" of school sports. But Blackshear said that this allocation would not include money for any new programs.
Building repairs. Board members have devoted much of their time this year to prodding the school system to make faster and better quality repairs to many of the city's old and crumbling schools. But the budget contains only $1 million in new money for repairs.
"This is for new equipment that will expedite repair activity," Blackshear said. "It can't solve our problems. I think our problems are a bit more massive than that."
The budget includes figures showing that enrollment in the system is expected to decline by less than 1 percent next year, to 87,110.