TESTIMONY BEFORE THE COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE AND THE COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COUNCIL
Joint Public Hearing on B23-0046, the “At-Risk School Funding Transparency Amendment Act of 2019” and B23-0239, the “School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment Act of 2019”
Laura Fuchs, Chair of the Washington Teachers Union Committee on Political Education
July 26, 2019
We have said it before and clearly we will have to say it again: Budgets are moral documents and are the foundation upon which our education programming is built. It is simply not possible to achieve our ambitious and important equity goals without equitable funding. And as we have seen time and time again, equity cannot be achieved if left up solely to a Mayor and their central office team – it must be inclusive of the stakeholders and those who are actually implementing the policy – and we cannot operate in the dark.
For the past 10 years I have sat and sometimes chaired the Local School Advisory Team at HD Woodson HS. Thanks to the guidance of experts like Mary Levy and DC Fiscal Policy Institute analysts, I have pored over budget documents and attempted to figure out if HD Woodson was getting the money it was owed by law. DC Public Schools has consistently made that almost impossible, taking up hours and hours of time just trying to get the right number that we are owed by law that would be better spent strategizing what to do with the proper amount of money. This has allowed our students to be consistently shortchanged in At-Risk, Special Education, English Language Learner and General Education dollars (as has been proven for At-Risk funds by the DC Auditor) and forces our school to rely on inconsistent sources of staffing that remove most of our local school’s decision-making power.
This year HD Woodson had to cut 8 positions. We have now had funding for ~2 restored thanks to efforts made by the Council. But we still don’t fully know if we should have received those cuts in the first place or if we were short-changed on our general education funds. While DCPS Central office continues to expand their spending, our school has made consistent cuts to services we can provide our services that are far bigger than is warranted by our student population.
The “At-Risk School Funding Transparency” legislation has the right idea – we need to make sure the decision-making power, by law, is vested in the local school and that DCPS supports and amends the decisions made there in a clear and transparent manner. Providing a separate narrative and publishing that information will hopefully go a long way in sharing best practices and allowing all schools to do what is best for their student populations. We should expand the legislation to include Special Education and English Language Learner supplements as well since there are legal obligations that this money also supplement and not supplant schools’ comprehensive staffing.
The “School Based Budgeting and Transparency Amendment” legislation does not address the major issues that we experience at the local school level, nor does it address the even larger issues faced by teachers in the Public Charter sector who have even less access to information and advisory power than those of us serving in DCPS. I urge the council to seriously amend the legislation before considering its passage.
The way that the legislation asks DCPS to categorize their spending by grade levels served will just give DCPS Central Office the door to further obfuscate what they are doing and its impacts. When you have over 800 people in a centralized location they have a lot of time to justify their existence while teachers actually working with students lose their jobs. There will be no additional information of use – especially if past documentation efforts by DCPS are any indication of how seriously they take these reporting requirements.
We need a clear definition of what makes a Central Office employee and then we need to hold DCPS to the law of only spending 5% or less on those activities. We are at least three times above the legal limit right now. We need more information on external contracts. I went through the spreadsheet submitted to the Council and it took hours of time to organize the information into useful pieces and I found many contracts that ostensibly did the same thing but were purchased from different offices from different companies. Either they were actually doing the same thing, or the reporting requirements are so general that we don’t actually know what was being paid for. On top of this there was zero justification as to whether these contracts – many that have gone on for years – have actually achieved the “results” that we are paying for.
I want to caution against assuming a buzzword like “student based budgeting” will automatically fix our budgeting problems. Many systems, like Chicago, are trying to move to our model because it actually provides more stability and makes school budgets less dependent on enrollment numbers and instead focuses on what the base-line level of what every school should have no matter what. The problem we have in DC Public Schools is that DCPS is not following its own policies. Changing the policy without some mechanism to actually make DCPS follow it will not change the problem. Enforcing the Comprehensive Staffing Model and actually following it would mean every school, even the small ones with fluctuating enrollments, would have everything they need to provide a robust education for their students. What we need to add is a more inclusive process for creating that baseline, mechanisms to clearly ensure that schools are getting what they are owed in that model, and then making sure that additional funds for specialized programming, Special Education, English Language Learners and At Risk students are added on top of that model.
DCPS Needs to follow the DC Auditors recommendations and keep one set of books that is open and completely transparent. What a principal sees at their school level should be the same thing an LSAT chair sees and should be the same thing the Council sees. We waste endless amounts of time with multiple books where nobody knows what is true and what isn’t – even the people who are tasked and paid very well for creating them.
Ultimately though none of this will matter if DCPS is allowed to flout the law with zero consequences. The Council needs to use its budgetary authority to force DCPS to follow the laws that are being written by this body. My suggestion – hold the pay of all Central Office employees until the requirements are verifiably met. We have allowed countless students to be underserved, educators who work directly with students to lose their livelihoods and an expanding “achievement” and resource gap under the watch of mayoral control. Enough is enough. This body took on the role of the school board when they empowered the Mayor and removed all authority from the school board. This is on you as much as it is on the Mayor.
Lastly, we need to talk about Charter Schools. DC Charter Schools are some of the least transparent in the nation. Everything I am talking about with DCPS – we don’t even know how much worse it is at some of our LEAs in this city because they don’t have to report what they are doing with their funds. When we do get glimpses they are extremely troubling. The current Transparency legislation does not do enough to allow multiple stakeholders – especially teachers – serving on the board. It is not enough to subject Boards to the open meetings act, we must also allow the public to FOIA the schools if they are not being forthcoming.
We need to have a common language on costs and we need to report it across all of our LEAs. This is something I worked with the SBOE’s ESSA Task Force and I urge you to assist OSSE in making this a reality.