Hoping to persuade the D.C. Council to beef up Mayor Marion Barry's spending plan for D.C. schools, the school board painted an alternately glowing and desperate portrait yesterday of the school system.
First, council members watched 15 minutes of a video extolling with speeches and music recent improvements in city schools. The council got plenty of credit for paying for smaller classes and improved student achievement.
Moments later, Acting Superintendent Andrew Jenkins told the council's Education and Libraries Committee that approval of Barry's spending plan "will put an abrupt halt to the D.C. public schools' current progressive pace."
The school board, which had asked for $482 million to operate the 87,000-student system next year, raised that request yesterday to $493.6 million to account for teacher pay raises. That is $55 million more than the schools cost this year, and $45 million more than Barry has recommended spending next year.
The school system says it needs the extra money to increase teacher salaries, speed building repairs and reduce class size in third and fourth grades and in secondary social studies and science classes.
But council members seemed skeptical of, and even hostile to, the board's request, especially because the school system used $8.3 million this year that the council had allocated for salaries to buy supplies instead.
"We have no demonstration in history that the money will be used for what we say," said Council Chairman David A. Clarke.
Said school board member Nate Bush (Ward 7): "It seems to me rather naive that a budget that is prepared 18 months in advance . . . that every single solitary item is spent exactly according to that plan."
Clarke, board President Linda Cropp (Ward 4) and other school administrators bickered over the system's movement of money among school accounts. Why, Clarke wanted to know, did the board not spend according to plan $4 million the council had allocated for building repairs?
Board member R. David Hall (Ward 2) said the money was redirected to improve instructional programs because other funds paid for all the repair work that could be completed.
But the larger question of whether the council will approve the entire school board budget request or land closer to the mayor's plan remained unresolved. A second hearing on school spending is set for March 1.
Several council members endorsed raising teacher salaries to the levels paid in Washington suburbs, and late last night Cropp said the board would consider reopening contract talks with the Washington Teachers Union if the council is willing to pay for larger raises.
But she warned that "we have to get commitments from the council. This sounds good, but there's no commitment."
Well into the evening, speakers from Parents United, an advocacy group, and from several city schools implored the council to provide the money to hire more teachers, pay them salaries closer to those in the suburbs and fix up the District's aged and crumbling school buildings.
"If the mayor needs to prune the overall budget, let him trim away at the less important edges of city spending, not hack at the strong root that will sustain us in the future," said Jay Silberman, cochairman of Parents United.
Jenkins added, "If ever we needed the resources to adequately support our public schools, we need them now, at a time when our city appears to be under siege from within and without."
The budget battle, which attracted an audience composed primarily of school administrators, seemed to transform Cropp, usually an irrepressible optimist about the state of the schools, into a sentinel of serious trouble.
Ten percent of elementary school pupils scored so poorly on tests that they could not be promoted last year, she said. And 40 percent of the system's high school graduates had no plans to continue their education or training.
"A budget shortfall could send the system spiraling into a state of regression," she told the council.
The video presentation of the school system's budget request, created expressly for the council hearing, was produced at the school system's media center, said school spokesman Maurice Sykes. Sykes said he could not provide an estimate of the cost of the video show because "it's done in-house and we have all the facilities already."
"In 10 years, this is the worst performance by the school system in one of these hearings, even with a fancy video," said board member R. Calvin Lockridge (Ward 8). "There's too much tension between the board and the council."
Lockridge regaled the council with tales of waste and incompetence among school employees and called on the council to exercise tighter oversight of school spending.
"The children are being shortchanged," he said.