- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2001

The D.C. Board of Education last night unanimously approved the school system's budget request, leaving parents with just one question: How much is it?

"I am going to ask what all of us are still wondering," school activist Mary Levy told the board. "How much is this going to cost?

"I am quite surprised at being informed that we can't see the budget until after the vote," she said. "When you create an impression that the budget is secret until it is too late to change it, it creates a bad impression."

Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz promised a "normal procedure" next year and supplied some figures: The board is asking the city for $716 million, about 11 percent more than last year.

The board's request increases Superintendent Paul L. Vance's request by $34 million, or 5 percent.

Mr. Vance, who has not formally made his budget request public, asked the city for $682 million, a 6.4 percent increase over last year, with a large part of it earmarked for reducing class sizes and boosting teacher salaries.

The budget had included money for expanding early-childhood programs and girls' athletics programs. It included some items favored by Mayor Anthony A. Williams, such as seed money for new technology programs at McKinley and Ballou high schools.

In the approved budget request, board members expanded those initiatives and called for others:

• Universal early-childhood education and after-school programs.

• A "clean school initiative" to address janitorial standards.

• Professional development for teachers.

• Improved books, labs and other classroom equipment for schools.

• Expanded vocational and bilingual-education services.

• Money for a "neighborhood partnership" program for all schools.

Board members also expanded the technology funds earmarked for McKinley and Ballou to include technology enhancements for all schools.

Information regarding specific amounts allocated to various initiatives were not available from the school system.

The budget is Mr. Vance's first financial request since arriving last summer to take the helm of the 69,000-student system. It is also the first major action of a restructured board of appointed and elected members who took office this month.

Yesterday, board members apologized for the exclusion of the public in the budget process and blamed it on time.

"We apologize. We made some decisions with the citizens in mind, but didn't engage the citizens in the budget process," said board member William Lockridge, District 4. "We won't do that again. We got involved in the process late."

One observer complained that the school board had dampened her hopes for a departure from "business as usual" by holding the budget work session behind closed doors earlier yesterday and not having the budget document available for parents.

"By handling the budget process this way, it really reminds me of another board in the not-too-distant past," she said, referring to the D.C. financial control board. "I thought things were going to change."

Other board members advised members of the public wishing to have their say to participate in Mr. Williams' budget hearings next week.

The budget later will be considered by the D.C. Council, the mayor, the financial control board and Congress. After it is approved, the budget will take effect Oct. 1.

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