D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, faced with receiving $26 million to $56 million less in appropriations this school year than she had hoped for, has begun mulling major cuts in her operating budget while waiting for a decision from Congress on a final funding figure.
Congress is late finalizing the District's appropriations bill--the fiscal year started Oct. 1--but it has already signed off on the $26 million that city officials trimmed from Ackerman's initial budget request of $627 million for the 146-school system. And the burgeoning charter school movement could mean that the city's traditional public schools receive even less funding.
Lawmakers are trying to complete work on the budget bill by the end of next week.
An Ackerman administration spokeswoman, Devonya Smith, said the superintendent has been meeting with staff members for the last two weeks to identify spending reductions, which Smith said would be made in central administration first.
"One thing we definitely want to stress is that the cuts will be as far away from the schools as possible," she said.
D.C. school officials, like other agencies, have historically asked for more money than they receive. But this year, because of a new funding formula, skyrocketing special education costs and a new emphasis on reform, the officials had hoped to get all the monies they sought.
Ackerman's $627 million request was contained in what is known as the local appropriation. After approval by the D.C. Council, the mayor and the D.C. financial control board, it goes to Congress as part of the city's overall budget. The school system also receives supplemental funds--$127 million is expected this year--from federal funding and several smaller sources of revenue.
Last year, the schools got $575 million in its local appropriation.
This year's initial $627 million request was derived in large part from a new formula designed to fund public schools based on their individual enrollment and student needs. Different sums are provided for students according to their grade levels and whether, for example, they require special education or English-language instruction. The formula funds the regular school system based on the previous year's audited enrollment and allots money for public charter schools based on their current year enrollment.
Using that formula, the school system sought $526 million. It also asked for $101 million in non-formula funds for such "state-level" costs as transportation and private school tuition for special education students.
The council, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and the control board this summer granted the school system the $526 million based on the funding formula but approved only $75 million for state-level costs, giving Ackerman a total of $601 million for the school year. The $26 million cut was made, city officials said then, because they wanted to push Ackerman to make faster progress on curbing special education costs and because they were increasingly concerned about future costs associated with charter schools.
The city now funds 29 charter schools, which operate with public funds but outside the bureaucracy. City officials decided to withhold 5 percent, or $30 million, of the approved $601 million budget until enrollments are collected and audited for both charter and traditional schools, which could take until December. The enrollment at D.C. charter schools has nearly doubled, according to unaudited counts publicized last week. Enrollment was taken last week at traditional schools, but no figure has been released.
The $30 million eventually will be divided between traditional schools and charter schools--or it could all go to charter schools, depending on enrollment. City officials have said it is imperative that the school system cut costs, especially with enrollment dropping.
But education advocates, arguing that basic costs do not decline proportionally, say the school system cannot improve without more money. Schools have to be heated, for example, even if there are 50 fewer students there than a year earlier.
"You can't get blood from a turnip," said Mary Levy, budget analyst for the education advocacy group Parents United.
Levy noted that Ackerman's $27 million request for special education transportation, which was part of the $101 million trimmed by city officials, would not have covered the cost of current contracts with bus companies.
"These things have to be paid," Levy said. "Where is the money going to come from? This is a mess."
Although policymakers emphasize the importance of protecting spending for direct instruction, cutting the funding from central administration can also cause problems. Ackerman has said her administration is cut to the bare minimum now--and some teachers and principals say privately there are not enough administrators to perform important functions.