Reflection and Testimony on DC School Budgets

The Mayor’s budget allotment to schools came late again this year. This time, it was released close to February break, and school leadership teams only had about five working days to turn them around. This would be unreasonable under any circumstances. But it was truly problematic for far too many schools that face cuts or inadequate funding to cover basic staffing and operational costs. Learn more about individual SY 19-20 school budgets using this interactive tool designed by independent budget analyst Mary Levy for the COALITION FOR DC PUBLIC SCHOOLS & COMMUNITIES (C4DC). You can also watch a recording of the March 29th Joint Budget Oversight Hearing, at which 160 DC school stakeholders signed up to testify!

Note: I was too far down on the list of the over 160 testifiers on March 29th to testify in person. I did, however, submit (see below) by email. If you have a story to tell about how budget cuts & instability are impacting your school, you can email written statements throughout the month of April to Ashley Strange, Committee Assistant, at astrange@dccouncil.us or mail it to the following address:

Council of the District of Columbia
Committee on Education
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Suite 116
Washington, D.C. 20004

Here’s testimony to the Committee on Education based on my conversations with Ward 1 school communities over the past month:

Emily Gasoi

Testimony to the Council of the District of Columbia

the Committee of the Whole and the Committee on Education

Joint Budget Oversight Hearing on DCPS

March 29, 2019

My name is Emily Gasoi and I am the Ward 1 Representative on the State Board of Education. Budgets have been a hot topic in my ward lately, as they have been citywide. Here’s the dispatch from Ward 1 schools:

 The week leading up to February break, I began hearing from principals: “Where are our budgets?”

The budgets were late, as apparently, they are most years, and principals wanted to know if they would be given extra time to review it with their respective leadership teams once they were released. In the end they were not given extra time. Most schools reported that they had to scramble, with only 5-working days to turn around their budgets.

 Shortly after school budgets were released, I received an email from a Tubman ES parent. Tubman is a Title 1 elementary school serving 560 students, 53% ELL and 63% At-Risk. The parent was concerned that her school’s budget had been cut and that they were going to have to lose essential staff even though the needs of Tubman students certainly will not become less pressing in SY 19-20.  

 A few days later, Bancroft ES Families and staff asked me to come discuss ways they could advocate to cover costs for two early childhood intervention staff positions that would be cut if their principal was not able to shore things up with Central Office. Bancroft is a Dual-Language school serving 550 students, 56% ELL and 35% At Risk.

 That same week a staff member from CHEC EC called to explain the predictable cuts his school was facing. CHEC is a Title 1 educational campus serving 1,210 students, 35%  ELL and 65% At Risk. As one of the largest schools in the city, CHEC sees its per-pupil funding go down each year.  “If we can’t right-size our budget, we are looking at cutting 2 staff members and we won’t be able to hire the social worker and other essential support staff we so desperately need.”  He went on to explain that this will mean increasing class sizes for ELL students who need more, not less individualized attention. This will mean that the school’s one middle school social worker who this year is managing 7+ homeless referrals, 40 PGT referrals, 15 504 cases, 21 IEP cases and has administered 80 special education eligibility assessments, will continue to be stretched dangerously thin. And it will mean that some of our city’s most vulnerable students will continue to have referral wait times of 8 to 10 weeks to see a school-based therapist.

In my visits to schools, when I ask principals about their budgets, they invariably explain that they had to “get creative” to make things work – one of them explained that a full-time classroom teacher was also being counted as a part-time special education teacher to fulfill the school’s At-risk staffing requirements. Others shared that their respective schools receive new students throughout the year, long after the fall count day.  This, of course, raises class size and puts a strain on teachers and staff.

 At the Ward 1 Education Council meeting in early March, we asked for a show of hands from DCPS stakeholders whose schools were losing one or more staff position due to inadequate funding in their SY 19-20 budget. Reps from ten of the twelve DCPS schools in attendance raised their hands (not all of them Ward 1 schools).

Some takeaways:

·      To state the obvious, the late release of school budgets and the unreasonably short turnaround time schools get to return them is not conducive to thoughtful decision-making for any leadership team. But for schools with budgets that do not adequately cover costs, having to rush decisions about which positions to cut is detrimental to student learning and to the morale of the entire school community. Of course, a greater effort should be made to get budgets to schools on time. But when they are late, school leaders have advised me that they need a minimum of two weeks to fully review them with their teams and make the best decisions for their school communities.

·      That said, schools might not need as much time to turn their budgets around if the budgeting process were more stable and predictable. Starting from zero each year while relying on imperfect enrollment projection methods has led to an unhealthy level of instability for schools.  

·      The school counting day is in October, even as there is predictable student mobility, mostly from Charters to DCPS schools, throughout the school year. One way to address this would be to include a second counting day later in the year and to right-size school budget according to the number of students that schools are actually serving.  

·      While all types for schools are impacted by such budget instability, the CSM is most predictably harmful to our largest and smallest schools. In fact, I have learned that one of the few things that large schools like CHEC ES can count on when it comes to their annual budgets is that funding will not adequately cover their basic staffing costs. This predictable inadequacy in our budgeting process needs to be addressed. 

·      In addition to addressing these dire inadequacies in our PreK-12 budgeting process, it is notable that Ward 1 is home to five of the city’s ten adult learning programs. Adult students have been provisioned with $50 a month to allay public transportation costs. As with our school funding, it is something, but it is generally not enough. On behalf of adult learning schools in Ward 1 and across the city, I am advocating for adult students to receive at least the $75 monthly that I’ve been advised would come closer to meeting their travel needs. Ideally, however, adult students would have all of their transit costs covered, just as PreK-12 students do. After all, for many adult students, their ability to do well directly impacts the ability of their own PreK-12 children to thrive in school as well.  

·      Finally, as with most everything education-related, this is an equity issue. While a majority of Ward 1 schools have to haggle each year with Central Office to get their basic costs covered or “get creative” with their budgets in order to make ends meet, I am aware that it is our sister schools in Wards 7 and 8 that were hardest hit. Schools east of the river are more likely to have declining enrollment and to be forced to absorb the most significant budget reductions — which directly impacts their ability to serve their remaining student population and to attract more students, thus leading them to enter a “death spiral.”  

 It’s true that not all DC schools faced cuts in this upcoming budget. But a system in which there are winners and losers is not, and never will be, an equitable system. When problems are predictable as all of these budget issues are, there is no excuse to continue on with business as usual. It’s time to make the changes necessary to bring stability and equity to our funding  process so that all our schools, from Ward 1 to Ward 8 are fully and fairly funded.

emily gasoi