Seeking to improve their often-contentious relationship, D.C. Council members and school officials are working together on efforts to find new funding sources, improve facilities and streamline the budgeting process. The council added more money to the school system's capital budget this spring, and members promise more is to come.
Approving a proposal that originated with Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), the council allocated $12.2 million in debt service to finance more than $100 million for school construction. The money, which is likely to be available next spring, will go for school construction projects that the school system deems high priority, including those related to special education and vocational education.
That is only a down payment on what the school system needs if it is to upgrade its aging buildings. D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi told the council last month that $2.8 billion is needed to modernize 130 schools but that the D.C. capital improvement plan assumes funding of $640 million through 2011.
Some of the city's 147 schools have not had a basic paint job in more than a decade, and others need more fundamental improvements. The council's Committee on Finance and Revenue approved a bill last month that would infuse $1 billion into the school system's capital construction budget beginning in fiscal 2007 by selling bonds backed by proceeds from the D.C. Lottery, even though some oppose using lottery revenues for that purpose.
The legislation was sponsored by D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4). But the council members who chair the finance and education committees, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), respectively, say that lottery money already is set aside for other uses and that another source of funding must be found.
"My view is that the lottery funding is a good source of funding, but I'm certainly open to another one," said Fenty, who is running for mayor in 2006. "My ultimate goal is to fix the schools."
Patterson said she hopes to meld some features of Fenty's bill into a broader piece of legislation that she will introduce in the fall, which would include an as-yet-unnamed dedicated source of money and ensure that it be spent effectively. One option, according to an Education, Libraries and Recreation Committee staff analysis, would be to give the schools a larger share of the overall city capital budget.
"The idea is to have a dedicated funding source for at least 10 years so the school system knows what its capital funding from the city will be and can plan accordingly," Patterson said.
In addition, "that would help strengthen the lobbying we do on Capitol Hill" for more federal money for school repairs, Patterson said.
Gandhi told the council that "the District cannot continue to address the needs for improved school facilities on its tax base alone" and "this funding is a federal responsibility." One of his arguments is that other big cities rely on substantial funding from their states, an option not available to the District.
Patterson said she has dropped her earlier proposal to create a trust fund to finance school construction because of opposition from the D.C. Board of Education, which wants to expand the school system's ability to manage construction rather than create a new entity to do it. Patterson said the school system has made several recent hires that show "they've made some headway" in that direction.
Patterson also has floated the idea of requiring the school system to present a three-year operating budget, so as to reduce the energy expended and friction produced by their having to propose and approve a budget each year. Some council members oppose the idea, and Patterson said it is still a "work in progress."
"We would welcome legislation designed to strengthen our work. We look forward to collaborating with our colleagues at the D.C. Council," said school Superintendent Clifford B. Janey, adding that he supports the proposals aimed at providing more construction money and establishing a three-year budget.
Janey said he'd like to see the council go further.
"There needs to be some discussion about this school district becoming a truly independent school district," he said. "It would be nice to have some bonding authority. That would require us having earned the respect of public officials [that the system is fiscally responsible].
"We're not there yet, but we're heading in that direction."
Staff writer V. Dion Haynes contributed to this report.