Testimony of Suzanne Wells
Committee of the Whole
Bill 24-570 “Schools First in Budgeting Amendment Act of 2021”
September 25, 2022
Thank you for the opportunity to testify. My name is Suzanne Wells, and I am the president of the Ward 6 Public Schools Parent Organization (W6PSPO). The comments I offer are my personal comments.
The Schools First in Budgeting Amendment Act seeks to address the instability schools face in their yearly budgets. Budget instability is a real and serious problem for DCPS schools, and results in schools not being able to retain staff and/or programming. When families come to expect certain programs or services at a school and they are no longer offered, the loss of these is very troubling. If programming is lost at a by-right school, it can lead in-bound families to look at other schools for similar programming leading to further instability in the system.
While the Schools First in Budgeting Amendment Act goal of creating greater stability in school budgets is a laudable goal, the bill will likely not achieve this goal. More importantly, because the bill does not address the adequacy of school budgets or the city’s decision-making that has led to an oversupply of seats/schools and an unchecked opening of new schools, the bill will not provide the budgets schools need to support their students.
I can’t in good conscience offer suggestions on a bill I believe is so flawed that it will do more harm in the end than good. This bill, if passed, will dramatically lessen any autonomy DCPS has over its budget. It will set in stone formulas that might seem good at the moment, but could be not so sound a few years from now. Fundamental flaws with the bill are that it:
– does not address how the city will replace the one-time federal and local funding that was placed in the FY23 school budgets to support schools’ pandemic recovery efforts;
– begins presumably with the SY23 budget where a number of schools saw detrimental budget cuts from the new DCPS budgeting model. This will perpetuate for the future budget problems these schools experienced;
– does not address the use of at-risk funds that are used to supplement school budgets and are not directed to the support of at-risk students; and
– sets an arbitrary central administration/local school budget percentage that would be inflexible for future years even if legitimate reasons justified a different percentage.
Our city spends over $2 billion a year on education. There’s really no reason that school budgets are inadequate. However, our school budgets are inadequate because of decisions our elected officials have made in overseeing our city’s education dollars. DCPS is responsible for providing a by-right public school system. The Council has approved the opening of too many schools, and this impacts the enrollment at our by-right schools.. Our city’s population is not growing, yet the Council and/or the Mayor have approved, e.g.,:
- Expanding Banneker in its renovation to grow from a 500 to an 800 student school. The students coming to Banneker in the coming years will likely be leaving our comprehensive high schools which will see their enrollments and budgets decline.
- Purchase of the Georgetown Day property and plans to build a new high school in Ward 3 to relieve overcrowding at Jackson-Reed High School. The overcrowding at Jackson-Reed could have been dealt with at no cost by reducing the out-of-boundary enrollment, and readjusting the Jackson-Reed boundaries.
- The opening of Bard Early College and Ron Brown College Preparatory High School.
All of these high school opening decisions were made with the goal of increasing choice, and did not consider impacts on feeder patterns within our by-right public school system or the budget impacts at schools losing students.
The Council continues to have blinders on regarding the Public Charter School Board . Since March of 2020, the PCSB has approved the opening of six new schools. What we are seeing now is that the PCSB is also approving the expansion of existing charter schools. For example, Washington Latin has recently purchased property in Ward 4 to expand its middle/high school for another 700 students. With a declining student population, where will the students come from to fill the seats at these new schools? They will come from existing charter and DCPS schools further leading to enrollment and budget decline.
Both the DCPS and PCSB opening of new schools has occurred at a time when the Deputy Mayor for Education estimates there are over 35,000 unfilled seats across both sectors.
Once these opening and expansion decisions have been made, it is very difficult to turn back the clock, and undo the decisions. Yet, it is these very decisions that are the major reason the DCPS schools have inadequate budgets. It’s enticing to look for simple answers to complex problems, and that’s what the Schools First in Budgeting Amendment Act is doing. If the Council wants to meaningfully address inadequate school budgets, it must first stop the continued opening of new schools our students do not need, and find a way to better balance the seats needed with our actual student population. The Schools First in Budgeting Amendment Act does neither. The challenges ahead will not be easy to address, but if schools are to get the budgets they need, the Council will have to find the courage to do the difficult work that is required.