- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2001

The District of Columbia's new Board of Education violated its new policies when members constructed a $717 million budget request Monday, an action city sources say also violates the spirit if not the letter of the city's open-meetings law.

The school board met Monday afternoon in a closed working session to discuss and revise schools Superintendent Paul L. Vance's fiscal 2002 budget proposal. Later, the board convened a public meeting and voted on the final version, declining to discuss the budget initiatives or total cost.

But according to the board's "Initial Board Policies, Regulations and Bylaws" adopted early last month, "all meetings of the board … in which public business is to be discussed or decided and public policy is formulated shall be open to the public… . Only business directly related to the specific exemptions may be discussed at a closed meeting or have a closed record or vote.""

Exceptions, the document reads, must follow D.C. law, which states that the board can close meetings dealing with personnel issues or any other meeting to discuss but not decide policy on other matters.

The law or policy doesn't list matters relating to the budget, and that, advocates say, means the board violated the law.

"They have a procedure in place," said Mary Levy, director of the education project for the Washington Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights. "Legally, government entities have to follow their own procedures. That's how all kinds of government actions have been overturned.

"I would cut them some slack," she added. "They have to be able to discuss things and hash things out. The trouble is when you set up a policy, you should follow it."

The board, when it closes meetings, the policy states, must also first hold an open meeting to announce the reason for holding the closed meeting.

That didn't happen Monday, school sources say.

Board members and the superintendent have said repeatedly that they had to scramble to put together the proposed budget. There was little time left over for public hearings.

"The board has been placed in an unusual situation," said board member Dwight Singleton, District 2. He added that because the board just got its authority back, it is still working through its priorities and procedures.

The D.C. Council must approve the budget before it takes effect Oct. 1. Mayor Anthony A. Williams will hold a hearing on it Tuesday.

Meanwhile, city residents continue to gripe over the lack of details available about the proposed budget.

So far, few have a copy of the superintendent's $683 million proposal to which the board added another $34 million in initiatives. There are few details available about the cost of these initiatives.

Those documents have not been developed yet, Mr. Singleton said.

"We are still working out the dollar amounts with the budget people," he said.

At the same time, the board's request for an additional $75 million over last year will require a legislative change in the school-funding formula, and if approved, means millions more in funding for the charter schools.

The D.C. School Reform Act of 1995 mandates that the city use the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula in determining the distribution of money to the public and charter schools.

The formula is based on enrollment, with additional weight given to special-education students and other categories. The concept of the provision is to ensure that resources are distributed equitably to all D.C. children, whether they attend public or charter schools.

While some charter-school advocates worry the mayor and city council will fund public schools over charters, sources close to both say that's unlikely.

Meanwhile, board members remain hopeful that the mayor won't make any "catastrophic" changes to the board's budget. But city council sources say it will be difficult to get a budget request that large fully funded.

"The mayor's office will look closely at the budget and any increases will have to be justified along the mayor's top priority: How do they help the lowest performing schools?" said Gregory McCarthy, director of the mayor's office of policy evaluation.

"The new Board of Education will have to present very strong justification for any increase in funding this year, particularly since the number of students continues to decline," said council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat.

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