$400 Million – by Peter MacPherson

by Pether MacPherson

Dear Friends:


Some of you may not be aware that last week the news was released that the city has a $400 million budget surplus. This is far in excess of the $140 million that was reported back in November. There are many worthwhile projects that could benefit from access to these funds. I’m hoping you’ll join with me in using a portion of these monies to address some severe shortcomings and inequalities that exist in the District of Columbia Public Schools. The needs fall in three areas: libraries, technology and music. We’ve made considerable progress on the library issue in the past year. The chancellor has publicly committed herself to a library and librarian in every school. Unfortunately the libraries need much more help. In most schools the library collections are old and thin or non-existent. Anacostia High School has a media center with no books. H.D. Woodson High School has 400. It should have 16,400. The average age of the books in Eastern High School’s small collection is 1980. The average age of the books at Watkins Elementary School is 1993. And even Wilson High School has a collection that is only half the size it should be. The libraries need a massive influx of new resources. Spending $14 million to $16 million would allow DCPS to bring most of its libraries to accepted norms in terms of collection size. It would give each school at least 30 periodical subscriptions and give students access to a much larger number of databases. It would allow the creation of a 40,000 volume digital library and give schools the eReaders needed to access these digital assets. And money would be available to upgrade library spaces in a poor state of repair.

The second area where the poverty in DCPS is profound is in technology. The limited presence of computers in many schools is quite profound. And even schools that have gone through modernization often received no computers or the ones they did are reaching the end of their useful life. At Maury Elementary School, for example, no computers were provided as part of its renovation. The school has two carts of laptops bought by the PTA. At Watkins, the computer lab is full of eight-year-old eMacs bought by the PTA. They are no longer supported and once they fail have to be removed. And no replacement is available. DCPS needs 15,000 computers, at a cost of $15 million.

Finally, the music programs are in very poor shape as a result of being starved for resources. I was in a District ¬†elementary school music class recently and there weren’t nearly enough instruments to go around. One child ended up using an empty copy paper box as a drum. DCPS needs $1 million in new instruments. It needs 60 new upright and 20 new grand pianos as well as new music software and access to online music libraries. The need in this area is around $2.8 million.

The hole that DCPS is in prevents making much improvement simply using the operating budget. All schools would benefit from this investment and it would allow the city to bring some equity to resources all schools should have. And there are programs stakeholders want–like International Baccalaureate–that require properly staff and resourced libraries. And none are present in the schools currently angling for this certification. In addition there is no currently mechanism to buy books for modernized schools. Right now we’re looking at the prospect of Dunbar High School and the new Ward Five middle school opening with no new books.

We now have a special opportunity to fix these problems and, in the process, greatly improve DCPS. A vibrant DCPS is key to the future of this city. The need here is between $35 million and $40 million. I’ve written the mayor and council and asked them to divert some of the surplus funds to deal with these issues. I hope you’ll do the same. The appropriate email addresses are listed below.

Peter MacPherson
pmacpher at aol.com


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