- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2002

D.C. school officials yesterday imposed a spending freeze on the fiscal 2002 budget, saying they were trying to avert another multimillion-dollar shortfall.
The school board unanimously froze $176 million in unspent funds to cover projected deficits after receiving information from the first monthly financial report since city and school officials discovered an $80 million shortfall last fall.
The action freezes money for new programs and equipment in the 68,000-student system, but does not affect school personnel. Any new spending will be approved through a "waiver process" for emergency expenditures.
"We never want to allow ourselves to be placed in the situation we were in last year," said school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz. "That is why we are trying to get a handle on it now."
School officials said the estimated budget gap is almost $23 million halfway through the fiscal year.
"We are trying to address the budget gap in a way that we can maintain control," said District 4 board member William Lockridge. "So we don't have to take draconian steps to reconcile the budget at the end of the year. It isn't going to be easy."
Board members also said they doubt they will have to furlough employees or cut seven days from school as they originally planned to stay within their $658.6 million budget.
In September, city officials stunned the city when they said they discovered an $80 million deficit in the fiscal 2001 budget attributed to cost overruns in special education and transportation. City officials transferred $60 million in unanticipated revenue to bail out the school system. School officials disagree that the overrun is that large and are waiting for the upcoming release of an audit by City Auditor Deborah K. Nichols.
Meanwhile, 151 anticipated cuts in school personnel have yet to materialize. In November, school officials said they would take steps to drastically reduce administrative personnel. But while employees wait nervously for pink slips, none has been forthcoming. Mrs. Cafritz said yesterday that she "feels badly" because of the misinformation and fear throughout the system.
"A number of managers prematurely told their employees about the cuts," she said. "But nothing has yet been decided. It takes time to build capacity and cut costs and personnel effectively."


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