- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2002

The District's public-school system is still $18 million short on its fiscal 2002 budget, and officials yesterday hinted they might need to strike 13 days from the school calendar if they do not get some of that money quickly.
In addition to a deficit of $71 million in last year's budget, school officials yesterday announced a $18 million shortfall created after Congress removed a special-education attorneys-fee cap.
The cap limited attorneys involved in special-education lawsuits in public schools to $125 per hour and $2,500 per case.
Louis Erste, chief operating officer for the school system, predicted the loss of the cap would send costs soaring by an estimated $15 million to $20 million.
Superintendent Paul Vance said the school system needed to find the money to avoid a 13-day furlough. Each school day costs the system approximately $1.4 million.
However, Mr. Vance and Peggy Cooper Cafritz, president of the school board, quickly added that there were no furlough plans being considered.
"We will work very hard to remove any furlough days," Mrs. Cafritz said.
Officials said they were working with the city to find additional revenue within the city's budget to balance the fiscal 2002 budget, and they said the shortfall "will in no way slow our pace of reform."
Richard Hays, special assistant to Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, said they had been working with the school system for "the better part of 2002" to alleviate the budget shortfall. "We think we will be able to close it up," he said about the shortfall.
He said the school system had not factored in the removal of the attorneys-fee cap when it created this year's budget. "No one knows what the impact of lifting this fee will be, but we will have to deal with it," he said.
Mr. Vance said the city and school system were seeking council and congressional approval for the transfer of $73 million from the city's reserve funds to help close the funding gap in fiscal 2002. He and Mrs. Cafritz blamed the revenue deficit on their predecessors. "The mistakes of the past administration should not be held before us," he said.
The school board had decided in November to cut the school year by seven days to reconcile the 2002 budget, after it was found in September that the system had overspent by nearly $80 million. Mr. Gandhi disclosed that the city's public schools had overspent $24.6 million on special education, $6.1 million on special-education transportation and $8.6 million on utilities. The school system also failed to collect $38 million it could have received through Medicaid revenue.
On Dec. 13, Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced he would give the school system another $10 million so it could cancel the proposed furlough. Three audits are investigating the overspending.
Mrs. Cafritz said yesterday that the system remained hopeful about recovering the Medicaid revenue. "We have a substantial degree of confidence we will get that money," she said.
She also said that in the future, the board would urge the chief financial officer to provide it with monthly financial statements to monitor spending.
"We will continue our quest to find where every penny has been spent and to ensure that every future penny is spent on children," Mrs. Cafritz said.

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