File: D.C. schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and her top deputies are holding a series of earlier-than-usual budget meetings with principals, teachers and parents, the beginning of what Henderson says is an effort to improve what has often been a contentious and frustrating budget-planning process.

“We’re trying to do this a little bit differently this year,” Henderson said at the first meeting, held last week at Southeast’s Hart Middle School. “We are asking you, before we make any commitments, to help us understand your concerns and priorities.”

Teachers and parents have long complained that the central office makes key spending decisions in isolation, without input from the people who work in schools and understand the on-the-ground implications of those decisions.

Complicating matters, each spring schools’ Local School Advisory Teams — or LSATs, groups composed of parents, teachers, school staff and community members — only get a few days to digest and appeal the budget they’re handed.

DCPS officials said that while that timing is dictated by factors outside their control, they want to start in earlier on the conversation about what schools need and want.

“If we do this right, the numbers will come and we will have already done our planning,” Henderson said at the Hart meeting, where LSATs from nine middle schools gathered to talk about what they wanted to see out of next year’s budget.

DCPS officials took notes as each school team discussed what they would do if their budget increased by 10 percent and what they would do if money was no object. Henderson urged them to “dream big” because — given that both the mayor and the chairman of the D.C. Council’s education committee are pushing to invest millions more in schools — all signs point to bigger budgets next year.

The conversations showed the huge differences in the challenges middle schools face across the city. One school’s big dream was to establish a study-abroad program and get a dedicated bus for field trips, while other schools said they need a summer “bridge” program to orient rising sixth graders and more mental health support to meet the needs of troubled children.

A Hart parent said the school has lost more than a dozen positions over the last two years even though enrollment is virtually unchanged, resulting in unwieldy class sizes of more than 30 students and large caseloads for special education teachers.

“Dreaming big means give us those positions back,” said one teacher from Hart, which is located in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

The state of the city’s long-struggling middle schools has drawn a lot of attention from parents and lawmakers in recent months, and Henderson has said that improving middle schools is one of her top three spending priorities for next year.

“I was inspired by what I was hearing,” she said as the Hart meeting drew to a close, “and I am going to fight like the dickens to get as much of it as I can.”

Some LSAT members said they were heartened by the meeting and by the chancellor’s approach to budgeting this year, while others quietly questioned how and whether it would have an impact on spending decisions.

DCPS officials have posted notes from the Hart session, as well as subsequent sessions with LSATs from elementary schools and K-8 education campuses, online at, a Web site they are using to collect feedback on the budget process. The last LSAT meeting is scheduled for Feb. 13.