D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and the city's school board have kept their budget disagreements out of public view for the past three years. This year, board members fought openly for more money largely because it is an election year for the mayor and seven council members.
To highlight their demands for full funding, several board members and School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie joined 3,000 angry students and parents in a protest last week on the steps of the District Building. McKenzie threatened to resign if the mayor and City Council failed to find an additional $16 million for the schools.
"We didn't just want the mayor to sweat, we wanted all the council members to sweat too, especially those intending to run for reelection in November," said one board member who asked not to be identified.
Yesterday the strategy appeared to have paid off. The council approved $393 million in school operating funds for fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 and about $62 million for capital improvements, which together exceed the schools' total budget request.
The school board had requested $396 million in operating funds for fiscal 1987, a $36 million increase over the current budget.
Barry recommended $380 million, which school board members complained was unacceptable because $17 million of that $20 million increase was earmarked for mandatory salary increases and other contractual obligations. That left $5 million for other expenses and new programs.
Some council members complained yesterday of being harassed by what they described as "acrimonious" tactics used by school officials and members of an activist parent group, Parents United for Full Funding, which organized the District Building rally with the help of school officials.
In taking their fight to the public, school officials hoped that the mayor and council members could not afford to vote against the city schools in an election year.
About 85 percent of the operating budget pays the salaries of the schools' 9,400 employes.
The school officials insisted that they needed additional money to finance salaries of about 410 new teachers, counselors and other personnel to reduce junior high and high school class sizes, continue special education classes and expand a variety of programs including full-day prekindergarten classes.
Not all school board members participated in the fight, but none openly criticized the strategy. "We do need the money, and if we can get it by fighting, then so be it," said one board member.
"We met with the mayor behind closed doors as we had done in previous years, but this year we told him we would have to fight him," school board President R. David Hall said.
"We had to take our cause to the City Council, hoping that council members would overrule his proposal and give us full funding," Hall continued. "It wasn't just a political decision based on the fact that this is an election year and he'll probably run again. The fact is that we really need the money to make necessary improvements in our academic program."
Some board members disagreed. "The idea was to create a climate in which it would be politically stupid not to give us more money," one board member said. "We wanted them [the mayor and the council] to think twice this year about their political future. They know that if they don't try to get us the money, they'll have to answer to their constituents."
Barry told reporters yesterday, "I could have given the schools a better deal if they had agreed to sit down and negotiate with me. For the past three years, we came to an agreement, but this year Parents United said that [arrangement] was too 'lovey dovey' and they wanted to fight."
Despite their support for increased funding for the schools, some council members said that school officials need to improve the way they account for appropriated funds.
Private and federal auditors recently criticized the school system for lacking documentation on the expenditure of $2.7 million in federal funds.