Sonja Walti – DCPS Budget Hearing – Nov 16 2022

Thank you for the opportunity to testify at today’s DCPS Public Budget Hearing, and thank you to my fellow participants and the public for guiding our school system’s use of resources. I am testifying here on behalf of School Without Walls High School’s Local School Advisory Team, to make three requests for DCPS’ 2023-24 school budget allocation. While speaking to our experience and needs, my testimony holds validity beyond the upcoming budget cycle and applies beyond our own high school’s challenges.
We contend that:

  1. Budgets need to fully fund our high school programming.
  2. Budget allocations need to account for building-related limits.
  3. Budgets need to be allocated in a fair as well as predictable manner.

Let me elaborate:
First, budgets need to fully fund our high school programming.
Post-2020, our high schools need student-centered programs, social-emotional support, and robust academic programs that fill pandemic-induced gaps while preparing our students for tomorrow’s complex realities. At School Without Walls, academic support, tutoring, and mental health support via our partnership with George Washington University have been making a difference. Those programs need continuity and funding. We also need to support teachers to continue the important work they do catching up students and mentoring them through difficult
times. Our students need global skills, including world languages, and hands-on proficiencies for college and career. Small as it is, School Without Walls needs support and budgetary leeway to capitalize on its partnership with George Washington University.

At School Without Walls, the federal School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) has been supplementing our budget, including paying for two social workers. When ESSER runs out – amidst added inflation – our schools are headed for a fiscal cliff. School Without Walls High School runs a lean program as it is, with faculty and staff wearing multiple hats. Any cuts go right to the bone, meaning teachers, core programs, and student support. The social and economic costs, especially in today’s circumstances, would compound for years to come.

We request that our school budgets be fully funded, accounting for any losses of discretionary federal funding.

Second, budget allocations need to account for building-related limits.

DCPS’ ill-conceived student-based budgeting system continues to make increasing enrollments the sole secure path to safeguarding a school’s budget in a manner that fully funds its teachers, staff, materials, and existing programs, thus fueling an absurd ratcheting up of estimated and oft outperformed enrollment numbers.

Nowhere is this cutthroat dynamic more obvious than at School Without Walls High School. With now over 600 students in a tiny building, which the 2018 Master Facilities Plan (p. A-52) says is built for no more than 520 students, we’re well past our full enrollment number – and outpacing the 5- and 10-year enrollment estimates underpinning that Plan’s 2021 update (p. 9); and this in a building that was last modernized in 2009 and whose systems are failing.

A 2013 report commissioned by the Deputy Mayor of Education says our high schools need at least 192 square feet per student. Per the 2018 Master Facilities Plan, Walls offered 115 square feet per student, so not even two thirds of that minimum (see this testimony’s Appendix for details). In other words, there were 1.6 students for every 1 student our building could sustain at the most per those standards; and we have since added another 15 students. As a point of comparison: even Jackson-Reed (the second most crowded DC public high school) counted 200 square feet per student, so almost twice what a Walls student is granted today.

Picture this: Our over 600 students are now crammed into oversubscribed classrooms, which thirty-eight full-time and nine adjunct teachers share. Theater is taught in the cafeteria while fielding balls flying over from gym class, held on the other end of the cafeteria. (For your information, Walls does not have a gym.) Classroom-less teachers cart their materials through the building (up multiple flights of stairs, by the way, because the one elevator in the building remained out of service for weeks). And teachers are left with no place to meet privately with students, let alone gather and recharge. And the greatest concern of all: Seeing how slowly and tightly packed our students fill hallways and two narrow staircases while evacuating the building – twice in the last weeks due to gas from a failing plumbing system – I don’t dare to imagine the disaster we’d face in case of a shooting or a fire.

Building capacity limits are critical when allocating budgets and developing algorithms to do so, so that staffing and programmatic costs can be met without ratcheting up enrollments.

Budgets need to be allocated in a fair as well as predictable manner.

Our DCPS budgeting process foresees that the principal – under advisement from their Local School Advisory Team – allocates an initial budget (a suggestion of sorts) in a way that will finance its staffing, materials, and programmatic needs. In reality, this happens within exceedingly narrow parameters: so many students, so many teachers, so many staff, so many advisors, so many computers etc. If there is anything left to decide, it’s usually how much paper to purchase, whether more soap is needed, and how much overtime custodians can work. Key decisions otherwise revolve around which positions to cut: teachers, social workers, librarians, or special educators.

After initial budget allocations are made follows the annual “game to reclaim”: notorious “loser” schools – among which School Without Walls finds itself year after year due to its small size – throw themselves into the fray to plug shortfalls. Then comes the “magic budget” (a backpocket of sorts) – the ESSER Fund this time around – to fill one gap or another. This is how School Without Walls High School lost its librarian in 2020 and 2021, had to excess a French teacher in 2021, and lost social workers and other support staff in that same critical period. Each time, it took months of advocating to fill those budgetary gaps. A distracting and demoralizing process, and by the time the budget was made whole, the relevant staff and teachers had packed up and moved on, taking with them experience, emotional ties with students, and programmatic and community relations. Not only that, they let their colleagues know that DCPS is not a predictable place to work.

This budgetary blame game feeds political motives and pork-barrel dealings while undermining the stability and predictability of our school budgets, not to mention escalating costs. Our students need continuity and familiar faces, and our school system needs stability in the face of a nationwide teacher shortage, which is especially severe when it comes to foreign languages, sciences, and special education (GAO 2022).

We request that, starting with the initial budget allocations, our school budget ensures continuity of staffing and programming, to support stability and predictability and retain teachers and staff.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify and to elaborate on our need for predictable funding that takes into account the programmatic and physical school-level conditions, at high schools in general, and at School Without Walls High School in particular.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: