The D.C. Council voted to keep phasing police out of public schools — despite the objections of the mayor and city principals’ union, which had said officers are needed to prevent school violence — as it approved a fiscal 2023 budget Tuesday that will spend a record $19.5 billion.
Tuesday’s vote was the first of two that the council will take on the budget before sending it to Bowser to sign.
Bowser and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) both wanted to restore long-term funding for police in public schools, despite a council vote last year to phase out the police presence. In one of the most contentious votes of the day, the council voted Tuesday against the mayor’s preference, instead continuing to remove officers from school buildings.
“Our schools should be a place where our students are supported and not a place where they feel policed by armed officers,” said council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4).
The members who voted to restore the funding for police in schools — Mendelson, Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) — pointed to a letter from school principals saying their staffs feel unsafe because of teenagers who could behave violently without police intervention.
“I’m concerned as the violence escalates ... if we don’t have the right people inside [schools] to de-escalate violence, to the point that there’s a stabbing or a shooting,” White said. “I’m having second thoughts about where we are as a city when it comes to public safety.”
The council attempted a compromise Tuesday between Bowser’s push to increase the size of the police budget and many council members’ reluctance to keep relying heavily on police for certain roles. Council members agreed to Bowser’s request to expand the D.C. force by about 30 officers next year. But they rejected much of Bowser’s request for extra benefits for police, including letting them drive police cars home and spending much more to help them pay for housing and college tuition, despite the mayor’s plea that such incentives are necessary to attract people to work for the department.
In total, the council cut about $6 million from the more than $500 million Bowser had requested for police, meaning police funding will increase more than $20 million above fiscal 2022 (when, like this year, the council increased the police budget but not by as much as Bowser wanted).
The council approved many of Bowser’s budget ideas, including a $10 million program to study how to help more Black residents buy homes, a new high school in Ward 3 and a near-tripling of the traffic cameras in the District, at a cost of nearly $9 million.
Mendelson also introduced ideas of his own. On top of the extra per-pupil funding that the District already gives to D.C. Public Schools as a whole and to charter school organizations for every at-risk student they educate, Mendelson steered an additional amount of per-pupil funding directly to the individual schools that have the highest portion of students considered at risk — those who are homeless, in foster care or behind their grade level, or whose families receive welfare or food stamps. The novel approach will mean some schools get a large allotment directly: Ballou High School would get $250,000 to support its 572 at-risk students, for example, and several elementary schools would get more than $100,000 each.
Bowser had proposed allotting a record half-billion dollars in one year to the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund, which subsidizes developers’ construction of designated affordable housing for people at certain income levels. Mendelson cut that by about $54 million, putting that money instead into permanent housing vouchers, known as Targeted Affordable Housing, that cover rent indefinitely for low-income families. He included a clause in the budget directing the city to give families who cannot pay their rent after the expiration of their short-term housing subsidy first priority for the 400 new vouchers.
Amber Harding, an attorney at Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said that even hundreds of new vouchers are not enough. Thousands of families get subsidies for at least six months through the city’s Rapid Rehousing program, and most still can’t afford rent when their short-term vouchers end.
“We’re not even halfway to what we’ve estimated the need is for people not to fall off the cliff. It’s great if that’s 400 families not going to fall off the cliff,” Harding said. “We are so far from what we need to do to have a just budget that even large increases like this, they aren’t enough to solve the problem.”
Bowser, who objected to Mendelson’s proposal to cut her $500 million plan for the Housing Production Trust Fund, raised another concern about the vouchers. She said in a letter that the new priority for people who had received short-term subsidies could lead families to believe they must first become homeless before they could eventually get a long-term housing voucher.
Other local advocates had campaigned for the council to include cash assistance for people who had been ineligible for some of the forms of aid that the federal and local governments offered during the pandemic, usually because they are undocumented immigrants. While the council did not agree to give out money to these residents, lawmakers did make a change that will benefit noncitizens. The budget makes all wage- and age-qualifying workers eligible for the city’s earned income tax credit (EITC) for the first time, whether they have a Social Security number or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. The federal government and many states require a Social Security number to claim the credit, meaning undocumented immigrants can’t get it.
D.C. increased the size of its EITC last year, making it the most generous in the country. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute, which advocated for the change, estimated that 5,100 D.C. households that include an undocumented immigrant will be able to claim the tax credit. The city projected that the expansion, which will begin at the end of 2023, will cost more than $3 million.
After the council raised taxes on wealthy residents last year, the fiscal 2023 budget largely avoids tax increases. The District continues to benefit from federal money meant to help cities with pandemic recovery and from healthy revenue from income taxes. Only a few fees increase in next year’s budget, including the fine charged to someone who destroys a boot on their car.