For the first time in 12 years, scores of parents with children in District schools took their outrage and their pleas for progress to a new judge last night. But Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon's verdict was unclear.
It was Dixon's first visit to the annual hearing on the city's education budget, and for 90 minutes she sat resolutely in the D.C. Council Chamber and listened to testimony about hazardous school buildings, ill-equipped and underpaid teachers and a school bureaucracy routinely described as inept and bloated.
The evening also was filled with ominous references to the city's financial crisis, which likely will sink any increase in the school system's $528 million budget this year. But many speakers, undaunted, plugged away with demands to improve classrooms.
Wanda Peyton, a parent at Deal Junior High School in Northwest, spoke of how shortages of money and space have stalled plans to build new science labs for students. "We are wondering how we will ever meet our goal of becoming a school of distinction," she told Dixon.
In one of the more striking moments of more than five hours of speeches, two recent high school dropouts asked Dixon not to reduce the city budget deficit by slashing education programs. They also urged her to watch the school system with vigilance and demand that it hire more compassionate educators.
One student was Devon Smith, 16. After saying he left Garnet-Patterson Junior High School in Shaw last year, Smith told Dixon, "Every year I heard teachers say, 'I don't care what you do, I get paid whether you come to school or not.' "
Dixon left the hearing without asking any parent a question, and said afterward that she still saw little hope of shielding the school system from deep reductions in spending. Earlier this month, Dixon asked the system to remove $10 million from its budget and said that she intends to shelve a $40 million plan to raise the salaries of the city's 6,700 teachers.
School board President R. David Hall, who sat next to Dixon during last night's hearing, has said the mayor's request for cuts probably will lead to teacher and administrator layoffs.
That possibility was derided throughout the night.
"If there are going to be layoffs, it has to be teachers last, not teachers first," said Mary Levy, a leader of the schools advocacy group Parents United. "We're not going to get any good teachers if they think they're going to be laid off in a year."
Dixon did not endorse layoffs, but said after the hearing that she cannot withdraw her request for the school system to make cuts and scrap its plans for raises. "There's great frustration out there, and I understand it," she said. "But if we can get around the immediate situation and get the federal dollars we need, then we can put money where it ought to go: to our children."
In one unusual twist to last night's hearing, several dozen speakers angrily demanded that the school budget not be increased until the system adopted an Afrocentric curriculum and school board members were removed from office. Most of those activists were part of a community group known as Operation Know Thyself or had been ardent supporters of former superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins, who was fired by the board in November.