The District’s public schools continue to misspend money designated to help the city’s most vulnerable students, according to a report from the Office of the D.C. Auditor.
The campuses serving the highest concentrations of students from low-income families experience regular budget cuts, the report found, and the targeted funds are used to plug those financial holes, a violation of city law.
The report — which D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) called “damning” — highlighted a long-standing issue in D.C. schools over the spending of education money. The Washington Post reported last year that the school system misspent millions of dollars intended for children with the greatest social and academic needs.
Each year, the District allocates additional money for students who are considered “at-risk” — defined as homeless, recipients of welfare or more than a grade behind in high school — to provide extra academic attention and social services to boost their performance.
The money is intended to pay for staff or programs on top of normal staffing levels. Instead, the report found, the money is used to pay for positions that should be covered by standard budget allocations.
The auditor’s report observed that about 40 percent of schools in the traditional public school system used funds intended for at-risk services to pay for 40 social workers and psychologists whose positions should have been funded through standard budget allocations in fiscal 2018.
More than half of the District’s stand-alone elementary schools used money meant for at-risk services to pay for 54 art and elective teachers whose positions should have been covered through standard allocations.
“My biggest takeaway was that some schools are fully funded — and it’s our wealthiest schools,” said Erin Roth, director of education research at the auditor’s office. “They cannot say it is not possible to fully fund schools because they are doing it.”
The city is expected to distribute more than $100 million in the upcoming budget year to benefit disadvantaged students in the traditional public and charter schools. That amounts to more than $2,400 per eligible child.
About 46 percent of the city’s nearly 98,000 public school students — including those in the traditional system and in charter schools — are considered at-risk.
The report’s release coincided with a D.C. Council hearing Wednesday on two pieces of proposed legislation intended to make school budgets more transparent. Dozens of residents testified about the proposals during an eight-hour hearing.
One measure would require the school system to move away from its staffing formula, known as the comprehensive staffing model, and give principals more autonomy in deciding how to use their budgets. The existing formula dictates, on the basis of enrollment, how many administrators and classroom teachers a school must have.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who co-chairs the education committee, said moving away from the staffing model would allow principals to tailor funding to meet their schools’ needs and enable them to properly spend money designated for at-risk students.
The auditor’s report found that the school system’s central office tells most principals what positions their schools will staff without explaining how the money for at-risk students is being spent.
“The real problem here is the comprehensive staffing model and the way we allocate dollars to schools to begin with,” Grosso said.
The second measure would mandate that the traditional public school system submit to the D.C. Council every year a report detailing how each school spends the special funds. The school system also would be required to submit a description of the programs and services paid for with this targeted money.
The charter sector, which educates nearly half the city’s public school children and has more flexibility with its finances, also would have to explain how it spends the special money.
“It really shouldn’t take an expert to understand how it is that we in the District of Columbia spend our tax dollars on education,” Eduardo Ferrer, a D.C. resident and policy director at the Juvenile Justice Initiative at Georgetown University Law, told the D.C. Council. “For that reason, I support both of the bills.”
D.C. Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said that he supported the intent of the bills but argued that they were rushed, and he called for more time to develop a thoughtful solution to the problems in the education budget.
Ferebee, who assumed the role of chancellor in January, said he feared that the measures could hinder the school system when it tries devising a better, long-term solution.
He said that he read the auditor’s report on at-risk funding and thought it contained useful recommendations. He stopped short of saying whether he believed the school system was misspending the special money in violation of city law.
“To reach a better budgeting process for [D.C. Public Schools], we need time for clear planning and meaningful engagement,” Ferebee said. “I acknowledge that there is a lack of clarity of year-to-year budgeting and some decision-making.”
Some council members countered that there have been multiple hearings on the topics and that the bills address budgeting issues that have been discussed for years in the District.
“The budgeting is messed up,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) told Ferebee.
Council members asked why some schools with steady enrollment projections are facing cuts when overall education spending is increasing. Residents and education activists testified that they have studied the numbers and cannot figure it out, either.
Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said the proposed bills could create more administrative work for school leaders and result in inaccurate tracking of how money is spent.
“I support the spirit of these two bills,” Kihn said. “However, I am concerned as currently drafted that these bills would create new and distractive administrative burdens on the public school system and have unintended consequences that could result in less-accurate funding of D.C. Public Schools.”
Many people also used Wednesday’s hearing to testify about proposed legislation that would make individual charter schools subject to public information requests and open-meetings laws.
Most spoke in favor of the legislation.
“While I understand that flexibility is a cornerstone of the charter movement,” said Mikey Weidman, a mother of two charter school students, “flexibility does not require secrecy.”