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D.C., flush with extra money, sends millions to DCPS and charter schools

The D.C. Council on Thursday grudgingly approved a proposal from Mayor Vincent Gray to send a pile of unspent cash to D.C. public schools and charter schools.

DCPS will get $7 million to upgrade Internet connections and infrastructure, particularly at its lowest-performing schools. Charter schools will also get $7 million that are ostensibly for facilities but can essentially be used for any number of priorities (details here).

The money comes from operating dollars left unspent during fiscal 2012, which ended in September.

The council supported the two spending measures in a pair of 9 to 2 votes. Despite the lopsided votes, many members expressed frustration with the mayor for springing the proposals on them in what they said was a last-minute surprise that left no time for vetting or real discussion.

Council members received the details of Gray’s proposal Wednesday night, and the deadline to act was Thursday.

“Too little information, too late,” said David Catania (I-At Large), who voted against both measures, arguing that extra money should be used to pay down the city’s debt.

Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) cast the other no vote, saying that such spending proposals should come up during the regular budget process when they can be weighed against competing priorities.

Had members failed to approve Gray’s recommendations, the money would have gone — along with the $140 million budget surplus — into an untouchable reserve.

“While I’m very frustrated that the mayor has not engaged the council on this, I don’t believe that’s a reason to not make the expenditures,” said Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who voted in favor of both spending measures. “These are good investments.”

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said the timing was a function of the calendar: Officials don’t know how much money is left in the coffers until they close out last year’s accounts, something they can’t do until after the fiscal year ends.

That money has to be redirected — or “reprogrammed,” in budgetese — by Nov. 1 under the city’s budget rules.

“We’d love to get this earlier but we just can’t,” Ribeiro said.

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