The new chairman of the Senate subcommittee on the District praised Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday for "making dramatic improvements" in the city's finances but demanded that local leaders do more to improve conditions in deteriorating public schools.
Closing underutilized school buildings should be a top priority, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) told Williams (D) and other city leaders.
"We need to get more resources into fewer physical plants," Brownback said, comparing the D.C. school system to "what's going on with military facilities around the world." Some schools should be repaired and modernized, Brownback said. "Other ones, we're just going to have to move on."
Brownback made his comments during D.C. leaders' annual budget presentation to the Appropriations subcommittee, the first at which Brownback has presided as chairman.
Paul Strauss (D), a shadow senator for the city, quickly criticized Brownback, saying he was outraged by "the idea of a Congress that ran up the biggest deficit ever telling D.C., with its biggest surplus ever, how to handle its budget."
But Williams, D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey all agreed that Brownback's advice was on target.
"We need to right-size our district, and that might mean closing some schools," Janey told reporters immediately after the hearing. Janey said he intends to develop a master plan for school facilities by the end of the year.
Cropp said of closing schools: "It can be done, and it needs to be done. The problem is, as soon as you say you're going to close a school, [parents argue that it is] the best-functioning school in the whole country."
The sensitive topic of closing or consolidating schools has been gaining momentum in recent weeks as the school system deals with continuing financial problems and its crumbling facilities show their age. Just this week, Janey sent all 65,000 D.C. students home early because of sweltering conditions in classrooms that lack air conditioning.
Enrollment in the school system has been dropping for years, and, according to one recent study, the system needs only 10 million of the 16 million square feet in its 147 schools. Boston, with a similar number of students, has "20 to 50" fewer schools, Janey said. But students, parents and teachers protested loudly when the system last shuttered schools in 1996. Until Janey arrived last year, officials had been reluctant to repeat the experience.
Yesterday, Brownback and Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, stressed the importance of closing underused facilities and using the savings to renovate surviving schools and help raise student scores. They appeared to dismiss pleas from city leaders for more federal dollars for school renovations, saying the system's $1.1 billion budget should be sufficient.
"A billion-plus budget is more than most cities of this size have," Landrieu said, noting that the District spends twice as much per pupil as does her home town of New Orleans. Saving just 5 percent would generate $50 million, Landrieu said, money that could be invested in the crumbling infrastructure.
Under questioning by the two senators, Janey said figuring out how many schools the District needs "is not the big lift." The problem, he said, is finding the political will to close neighborhood schools.
"We've got to have people in this room stand next to me and say, while we have downsized or right-sized, life after that will be better for our children and our community," he said.
The Senate subcommittee did not act yesterday on the District's fiscal 2006 budget. But a House Appropriations subcommittee approved it by voice vote and sent it to the full House panel.
The House version includes $8.3 billion in local funds and $560.3 million in federal aid, slightly less than the $573 million requested by President Bush. Differences with the Senate, which has allocated $593 million for the District, will be worked out this year.
The House bill tracked Bush's recommendations for $33.2 million for the D.C. college tuition aid program, $5 million to clean up the Anacostia River, $7.2 million toward a bioterrorism and forensics laboratory and $41.6 million to aid D.C. schools.
The subcommittee added two provisions to allow the mayor, with approval from the D.C. chief financial officer and the D.C. Council, to spend certain local and emergency reserve funds in case of a budget surplus. The move eases a requirement that the District get Congress to pass emergency legislation to tap surpluses during a fiscal year.