When D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced in January that she wanted to close 15 schools, she said the downsizing would help create a stronger school system with rich academic offerings, a system that could compete with the city’s charter schools.
But Henderson’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget has raised concerns about her ability to fulfill that promise. The $818 million spending plan, an increase of less than 1 percent from this year’s budget, calls for some new investments, but it requires cuts to staff and programs at dozens of schools, including some where enrollment is holding steady or rising.
Henderson faced skepticism Thursday when she testified before the D.C. Council’s Education Committee. Committee members blasted the spending cuts and expressed concern that they could cripple efforts to persuade parents to send their children to the city’s traditional public schools.
Henderson told the committee that she has little choice but to shift resources because of the system’s failure to meet enrollment projections. The system received per-pupil funding this year for a projected enrollment of about 47,000 students, but only 45,500 showed up. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has said he was obligated to use a more realistic number for next year: 46,060.
“We would have to take the money from somewhere else,” Henderson told the committee. “We are doing the best we can with the hand we were dealt.”
Parents and politicians say the reductions threaten families’ faith in the school system, particularly in nonselective high schools and middle schools, many of which are facing deep cuts. At Stuart-Hobson Middle School on Capitol Hill, where enrollment is projected to rise but the budget would be sliced by 12 percent, students would be able to take a foreign language only if parents raised enough money to hire an after-school teacher.
“The message that [D.C. Public Schools] sends to families looking for anything other than the bare minimum is, ‘Go to charters,’ ” said Laura Marks, a PTA member at Watkins Elementary, which is a feeder school for Stuart-Hobson. “It’s like DCPS has given up the game at middle school. They’re just walking away from it.”
Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Education Committee, said Henderson and Gray should have done more to reallocate resources so that no school experiences a cut of more than 5 percent. Catania said several schools — including Eliot-Hine Middle School, Ballou Senior High School and Stuart-Hobson — are looking at cuts of at least 10 percent.
“You are left to defend a budget that in many ways is indefensible,” Catania told Henderson. “The responsibility of this budget rests with the mayor.”
Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who, like Catania, is considering challenging Gray in next year’s mayoral election, said the school budget is unacceptable. Wells said many of the proposed cuts would hit schools on Capitol Hill, which he represents.
“The greatest cuts have been in the schools that we’ve had the greatest challenge getting the parents of Washington D.C. to trust them,” Wells said. “I am very concerned you will not be able to convince parents to stay in DCPS at the middle school level with this budget,” Wells said.
Also Thursday, Catania clashed with Henderson over funding for summer school after it was disclosed this week that the city plans to switch to invitation-only enrollment because of limited resources. That could leave hundreds of low-performing students out of the picture.
Henderson said the new approach, which allows for 2,700 summer school slots, is needed because only $2.3 million is budgeted this year. Catania said he plans to ask Gray to use part of the city’s $400 million fiscal 2013 surplus to expand eligibility for summer school.
“It just seems we need a more robust, targeted, thoughtful use of summer school,” he said. “We have a whole bunch of young people who simply cascade through the system until they hit the point of failure.”
Henderson said that the budget includes a $7 million increase for 2014 and that 90 schools — about 82 percent of the system — will see an increase in funding. She said the budget also includes money to boost literacy and to guarantee that every elementary school student has “exposure” to art, music, physical education and a foreign language each week.
The system plans to hire 56 additional art, music, PE and foreign language teachers along with 28 additional social workers.
“I believe that this budget is well built to help us achieve the ambitious goals that we set for ourselves,” Henderson said.
Parents say that individual school enrollment estimates seem unfairly low and that the low projections lead to program cuts, which drive families away.
“Not investing in neighborhood schools where enrollment is low is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Jim Sullivan of Logan Circle, one of dozens of parents and activists who aired their concerns about the school budget during a council hearing last month.
Council members have appeared sympathetic to that argument and have signaled an interest in restoring some of the cuts, although it’s unclear where they would get the money to do so.
Catania has said he is interested in identifying unnecessary spending that can be redirected into a fund that would be used to stabilize budgets at schools with falling enrollment.
Absent such a fund, Catania says, families can’t trust that schools will offer the same programs from one year to the next, and schools can’t serve the students left behind.
Ballou, in Southeast Washington, is slated to lose more than 10 percent of its budget next year. But more than 700 students at the school will continue to face profound struggles: Truancy is rampant, 99 percent of students are poor, more than a third have disabilities and fewer than a quarter are proficient in reading and math.
“We do want money to some extent to follow the children,” Catania said in a hearing last month. “But we also need stable schools, and the two are not mutually exclusive.”
Henderson has argued, in a recent Washington Post op-ed and in budget documents, that the school system is investing in important but little-seen improvements, such as literacy instruction, staff training and access to arts, music, foreign language and physical education.
The system is hiring more than 200 teachers to eliminate mixed-grade classes and is investing $12 million in efforts to boost literacy. The money will be used to bolster curriculum citywide, extend the school day at nine low-performing schools and hire reading specialists and literacy-focused assistant principals at 11 schools.
For the first time, all elementary schools will be required to offer 45 minutes a week of art, music, physical education and world language, an approach intended to ensure equitable opportunities.
But schools also have much less power to tailor spending to community needs, a change that has been unpopular among principals and parents.
“My kids don’t need to learn French. They need to learn to read and write on grade level in English,” said the principal of a school with a high percentage of struggling students, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Some council members have expressed concern about curtailing principals’ flexibility. Schools spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said that D.C. principals still have great latitude to choose their staff, but the new scheduling requirements were necessary “to ensure some consistency across the district.”
The requirement to offer all four special subjects comes with a catch: Dozens of schools won’t receive extra resources to meet the mandate. Some schools that currently have a full-time art teacher, for example, will have to downgrade that position to a part-time role to be able to hire a foreign-language teacher.
Overall spending on art and music is falling from $20 million to $18.3 million, according to budget documents. But the school system is more than doubling its investment in foreign language, from $5.4 million this fiscal year to $11.4 million next year.
The school system also plans to spend more on librarians, addressing long-standing complaints about the more than 50 schools that have no librarian. Nearly every school will have at least part-time librarian coverage next year. But to help pay for that increase, more than two dozen schools that currently have a full-time librarian will see that position reduced to half-time.
Activist Peter MacPherson, who is among the most vocal critics of school policies under Gray and Henderson, has called on the mayor to dip into the $1.6 billion in combined surplus funding to make sure that every school has a full-time librarian and books on the shelves.
“For those of us who have been advocating on this issue for more than year, what the chancellor has put forward thus on this issue is nothing but an affront,” MacPherson wrote in an e-mail to Gray. “I’m telling you that a wide swath of the school stakeholder community is deeply unhappy.”