Committee on Whole and Education
Budget Oversight Hearing of the District of Columbia Public Schools
Friday, March 29, 2019
My name is Betsy Wolf, and I am representing Amidon-Bowen and all DCPS schools facing staffing cuts today. About this time last year, DCPS unexpectedly cut several staff from our school budget, and I started my side-job creating graphs showing how inequitable funding in this city is; I am an education researcher by day, after all. One year and hundreds of graphs later, I am still trying to understand how it is possible that in a city as rich as DC, schools are forced to cut staff from their budgets each year. Here is what I’ve learned.
DCPS has shifted costs to the school level over time
Since the reign of Michelle Rhee, DCPS has shifted costs to the school level, so while it may look like budgets increase over time, you have to account for shifting costs. Some examples include technology, social workers and psychologists, JROTC instructors, background checks, and most recently, school security funds.
Staffing costs rise faster than increases in school budget allocations
Another big problem is that costs rise faster than increases in school budget allocations, which means that some schools are faced with new staffing cuts each year. DCPS requires schools to use the average districtwide cost for a position, and the cost of each position increases annually. This is another example of why a budget “increase” may not actually be an increase in purchasing power.
Unpredictable fluctuations from year-to-year and unfunded mandates
DCPS also starts the budgeting process from scratch each year, so there may be wild fluctuations from one year to the next in a school’s budget. DCPS may also change its rules about how it allocates funds each year with no notice to schools.
There are also unfunded mandates. Schools at times are “strongly advised” or required to employ staff whose positions are not funded by the comprehensive staffing model (e.g., LEAP, sped managers). Schools must then use their extra funds (if any) to cover unfunded mandates.
Budgets are then made more complicated by additional rules, carve-outs, and supplements that may show up in one year and be taken away the next. DCPS giveth and DCPS taketh away.
Not following intent of law on stabilization funds
After the Mayor decides how money to allocate to DCPS, DCPS figures out how to make the numbers work, taking advantage of loopholes and loose interpretations of the law that says a school budget can’t be cut by more than 5% in a given year. DCPS is not able to fund schools at similar levels each year because DCPS is not guaranteed any amount in the Mayor’s budget.
Staffing cuts results in other negative ripple effects
As a result of unpredictable and inadequate school budgets, schools have less purchasing power over time and are forced to make staffing cuts. As a result of staffing cuts, there are negative ripple effects, including highly inequitable PTA funding, lack of resources like working computers, and low morale and declining enrollment in schools that can’t cover shortfalls with PTA funding. And of course declining enrollment means less money for next year, so more cuts.
DC’s school governance structures and funding formula are also to blame
But the blame cannot be placed solely on DCPS. Our city’s school governance structures and funding formula are also to blame. Which means the burden of fixing the problem isn’t just on DCPS, it’s on all of us. I’ve learned a lot from others in my journey this past year, but there are still questions I cannot answer as a member of the public.
Recommendation 1: Fund education at adequate levels recommended by study
The city commissioned an adequacy study of school funding in 2013, and the city isn’t adequately funding education, according to its own study. Why not? That seems like a relatively straight-forward fix.
Recommendation 2: Investigate root causes of staffing cuts each year
Why is it that costs rise more than school budget allocations? What are the root causes of this problem? Is it that DCPS doesn’t get enough money from the mayor’s budget to cover costs? Is it that there is inefficiency in spending in central office? DCPS separates money into three categories: school-based, school support, and central office, but school support is really an arm of central office, so is central office too large?
Recommendation 3: Investigate differences in purchasing power for DCPS versus non-governmental LEAs
A dollar in DCPS doesn’t go as far as a dollar in the charter sector. DCPS must use all of the city’s agencies and city-approved vendors. That may be desirable for the city except for there’s no recognition of this in the school funding formula that gives equal per-pupil amounts to the DCPS and charter sectors. There’s no acknowledgement that DCPS is a governmental agency that has to abide by different rules than a non-profit in the non-governmental sector.
Recommendation 4: Provide Council oversight that goes further than asking hard questions during hearings
I know these issues are complex. But we don’t we have answers to basic questions that would help guide legislation to make sure that schools are adequately funded. I’ve seen many of you ask hard questions in oversight hearings, and I appreciate that, but if that’s where the oversight stops, we have a major problem. On this note, I applaud Councilmember’s Allen recent push to make charter schools, which are public schools, also subject to FOIA.
How are we going to solve the school budget crisis without first getting down to the facts? My recommendation is to hire an independent school budget expert and start to investigate some of these issues and determine the root causes.
Cuts in staffing and other resources at the school level are costly for students
The reason we all drag ourselves to testify again and again is because the cost to students of school budget cuts is great. If you’ve ever served on an LSAT, you know just how painful the conversations around staffing cuts are. How do you choose between a reading specialist and mental health professional for students? A mental health professional and enrichment beyond math and reading for students? Don’t our students deserve both?
It is time to put our money where our mouth is and actually put students first.