Congress has placed a temporary hold on $10.6 million pledged to the D.C. public school system to complement a new federally funded school voucher program, saying a proposed school spending plan is unacceptable.
Congress and President Bush approved $13 million for the public schools and $13 million for D.C. public charter schools in January to win city officials' support for the separate voucher program to send children to private schools. Last month, Congress vowed to withhold the funds because school officials failed over three months to develop a spending plan that would satisfy legislative requirements.
Congressional leaders reached a compromise that allows the District to spend $2.4 million to place a 300-book library in every elementary classroom and a reference library in every secondary classroom. But Republican and Democratic leaders of House and Senate panels overseeing District finances withheld the remaining $10.6 million until a new superintendent can weigh in on the proposed spending plan.
The school system has been guided by interim superintendents since November, and school officials had planned to spend the $10 million on a computerized textbook inventory system, a mandatory reading instruction course for all teachers and a curriculum overhaul.
"We have come to the conclusion that some of these funds, like purchase of standard curriculum materials, have far-reaching implications beyond this superintendent and should not be presented to a new superintendent as a fait accompli," said Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District.
The money will be released to the next superintendent as a "reserve fund" with no strings attached, according to a letter signed Tuesday by four key members of Congress and released yesterday.
The letter was sent after Frelinghuysen brokered a deal between his counterpart on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District, Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who had sought to take a harder line against the schools, and the panels' ranking Democrats, Rep. Chaka Fattah (Pa.) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), who said DeWine's public threat to withhold all the money was unduly punitive.
"We just want to make sure the schools get all the money. The sooner the better," said Gregory M. McCarthy, a deputy chief of staff for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).
Williams initially sided with DeWine, criticizing the schools for resisting his help and telling him to "bug out." Interim Superintendent Robert C. Rice responded by accusing Williams's aides of sabotaging the funding effort to advance the mayor's reform proposal to take over school operations.
Congressional aides rebutted Rice's contention that he was unaware of mounting frustration among Republicans and Democrats on the Hill and said they had held talks with him to make clear the depth of the school system's problem.
Lucy Young, a school system spokeswoman, said Rice was unavailable for comment yesterday. However, she said he was pleased that some money would be released.
"He is elated about the fact that the Congress has released the $2.4 million to allow us to get books and to deal with the literacy initiative," Young said. "He's very happy about that. He does not have a problem that the other moneys will be put into a fund until the new superintendent has been appointed."
Previously, Rice had said he was displeased that the money was being withheld and that the action would be a setback to the initiatives the school system was planning.