- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2001

The District of Columbia school board is going to plead directly for more money from the D.C. Council because they say Mayor Anthony A. Williams is being too stingy.

"We have a mandate for change in this city, and that mandate is going to cost money," school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said yesterday. "We have to make a down payment in this first year."

"We could not in good conscience agree with what has been advanced," she added.

The mayor's office disputes the school board's authority to take its case directly to the council.

"The only person who can submit the budget to the council is the mayor." said Abdusalam Omer, the mayor's chief of staff. "If they do so, the council will have to raise these same issues."

According to the District's home-rule charter, the mayor is the only person who can submit a budget.

Mr. Williams was unavailable for comment.

He introduced his $5.3 billion budget Monday, up 8.4 percent over last year. His offer to the schools totaled $658 million $29 million or a 4.6 percent increase over last year, according to city documents.

D.C. school officials dispute the amount of the increase, saying it actually rose only 2.7 percent or $17 million the school system had $12 million more than approved in last year's budget because of funds held in reserve and excluded from the city's budget documents.

Board members said that makes the mayor's proposed increase less than the 3.1 percent cost-of-living increase.

"We're not here to bankrupt the city," said Charles Lawrence, a mayoral appointee to the school board. "But saving the schools is essential to the city's well-being. Yet the mayor's budget does not meet [the school system's] basic needs. That's why we are sending our budget directly to the council," he said.

"It's not all about money. It's also about good management," Mr. Omer said.

"While the mayor is committed to finding more money for the schools, the board should take a toothpick to their budget to find out where they could save," he added.

City budget officials said the numbers the school system is using to calculate the increase is not standard practice.

"There are many opportunities for funds to be reprogrammed throughout the fiscal year and many avenues the budget can be increased," said Wayne Upshaw, deputy chief financial officer for budget and planning. "But the standard way to measure increases is from the approved budget. That amount is $629 million for FY 2001 for the school system."

Regardless, the school board wants at least $61 million to begin putting in place the pieces of a successful school system.

School board members said they want to change the student financing formula to pay for increases in teachers' salaries that will make them competitive with higher-paying neighboring districts. They also want to reduce class sizes and pay for early childhood education. And they say they need $220 million dollars to start renovating decrepit schools and building new ones.

Charter schools will receive a $37 million increase in funding because of large increases in their enrollment.

The school board's request will require a legislative change in the school funding formula, and if approved, mean millions more in financing for the charter schools, under the law.

But board members said the mayor's current budget plan will "seriously compromise" planned improvements in the school system.

"It is totally disgusting that the nation's capital has to go to foundations to get graphics calculators because the city can't afford to put them in the hands of every geometry student," said Mrs. Cafritz.

The mayor's budget plan includes increases of only $750,000 for recruiting principals for the 30 poorest performing schools and $174 million for building and renovating schools.

School board members softened their criticism of Mayor Williams yesterday, but said they were determined to get more money for the 69,000-student school system any way they can. They offered to join the mayor and council members in pressuring Congress to approve tapping into the District's mandated reserves.

Meanwhile, some council members said they aren't opposed to providing more for the schools than the mayor has requested.

"We have done it before," said Ward 4 council member Adrian Fenty. "Even though we have to continue to be thrifty as we move out from under the control board, we absolutely have to get the schools more money to get them out of the dark ages."

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