Take Ballou High School in Southeast Washington. Budget documents suggest that it is losing more than $180,000 — a reflection of a projected 30 percent drop in enrollment.
But the drop is even more severe than an initial reading of budget documents suggests. For the first time, the cost of providing security on campuses is being taken out of individual school budgets instead of being covered through the school system’s central office. So when accounting for $817,541 in security costs, Ballou winds up hemorrhaging nearly $1 million. That brings its budget to $12.4 million for an expected 568 students.
City law states that most schools cannot lose more than 5 percent of their budget, no matter how much enrollment decreases. The city adds “stabilization funds” to keep the budget decreases below that threshold.
The school system said it added more stabilization funds if security costs adversely affected a school’s budget, but not necessarily enough to bring the decrease below 5 percent.
Other schools expected to see significant cuts include Hendley Elementary and Anacostia High. Last year, these schools received extra stabilization funds to account for declining enrollment; they are not receiving that money this year.
“Students have been walking up to me saying they are concerned [about the budgets]” said Ward 8 Council member Trayon White Sr. (D), whose district includes Ballou and Anacostia high schools. “D.C. leaders talk about equity, and now is the time to address the race disparities through the budget.”
The budgets reflect the challenges that come with creating equitable spending plans in a city where many schools in low-income neighborhoods — particularly middle and high schools — lack students, and other campuses in wealthier neighborhoods are at capacity. Each school receives an allocation based on how many students are enrolled.
But safeguards ensure that schools’ budgets are protected from dwindling enrollment, chiefly the law that requires the city to use stabilization funds if enrollment decreases. However, teachers and education advocates say the school system appears to be circumventing those protections in the spending plans.
The budgets are not finalized and could shift after Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announces her citywide spending plan Wednesday and the D.C. Council votes on it.
“The fact is that it’s confusing every single year,” said Ed Lazere, the director of the left-leaning D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “And in an allocation that is supposedly formulaic, every year there seems to be some serious winners and losers — that alone is a sign that something is wrong with this process.”
D.C. Public Schools released individual school budgets last month.
Bowser said in an interview ahead of her State of the District address Monday that the current $10,658 per pupil funding allocation would increase by 2.2 percent for the upcoming fiscal year in the traditional public and charter systems. Overall, the education budget for the traditional public school system would increase by nearly $50 million. The charter sector, which educates nearly half of the city’s public school students, would also see a boost.
D.C. Public Schools has a mandatory staffing model, which dictates how many teachers and staff members that need to be employed based on enrollment.
Charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded, have more flexibility in spending their money.
“Mayor Bowser has made unprecedented investments in public education, and families are choosing our public schools,” LaToya Foster, Bowser’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We’re proud of the progress our students are making and know there is more work to do.”
D.C. schools chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said money for the security needs of schools was transferred from the central office budget into the schools’ coffers so it did not come at the expense of classroom instruction and support staff.
“The intent of that is transparency,” Ferebee said. “That is not driving the budget down.”
Mary Levy, a longtime schools budget analyst who worked as a paid consultant for the city, said because of the rising cost of staff each year, a larger school system budget does not mean there’s necessarily more money to spend for additional staff or more programs.
“A lot of schools are going to go backward in terms of resources — no question,” Levy said.
Bowser said some schools with longer school years — which the city announced last month it would eliminate — are seeing budget cuts. The program was partly paid for with “at-risk” funding, which is additional money allocated for students who are homeless, languishing in high school or whose families receive welfare.
H.D. Cooke, a school in Adams Morgan with a high population of at-risk students, was an extended school year campus that is expecting a 12-student enrollment drop. The school is losing about $400,000 that some fear will lead to staff cuts.
“H.D. Cooke is a great school, and it’s going to continue to be a great school whatever the budget is because of the dedicated staff that is there,” said Mike Duffy, a father of a second-grader at the elementary school. “But budget cuts make their jobs harder.”