- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2003

When D.C. school officials announced on Wednesday that about 770 workers would be let go to help stem $38 million in red ink, reaction was swift from all quarters. Most of it was unjustifiable finger-pointing at Mayor Tony Williams and the D.C. Council. School board member William Lockridge, who is chairman of the Committee on Finance and Facilities, said, “The council and mayor should step up to the plate.” Mr. Lockridge’s comments are misdirected, since it is his and his colleagues’ sole responsibility to oversee and allocate D.C. Public Schools expenditures. It is time for the mayor and the council to stand united on the reform front.

The Lockridge panel knows that its constant budget overruns were stymying any semblance of desperately needed management reforms. In 2002, for example, while the mayor and other council members were trying to convince Congress that they were being fiscally responsible amid the economic downturn, the board could not agree on how to stem its growing deficit — other than to lay blame on City Hall and other high jinks, like threatening to cut funding for textbooks. This summer saw more of the same, when City Hall warned that government coffers could only offer schools limited additional aid and city leaders suggested staffing cuts. The board, however, decided to institute a salary freeze, drawing the wrath of the union, which filed a successful lawsuit.

Money woes alone, however, don’t begin to capture the sword-measuring between city and schools officials, mostly because of entrenched school mismanagement. First, the mayor and two of the chief overseers of the school system (Council member Kevin Chavous and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz), stood together in support of a federally funded voucher program for poor D.C. families to assuage parents and policy-makers who are frustrated with slow-moving reforms. Then, when the mayor and the council learned that school officials had spent money meant for the pay raises, they threw down the proverbial gauntlet in a Sept. 17 letter to the president of the school board. The letter said that funds for the raises would be granted if the board did two things: rescind its decision to unilaterally grant the raises; and take other steps to address the remaining budget gap. The third item hinged on “Congress granting the mayor and the council ‘line-item authority’ over the DCPS budget,” the letter said.

Unfortunately, Congress did not do its part. That doesn’t mean, however, that school officials shouldn’t do theirs.

Cutting personnel is a good start. The majority of the 770 or so cuts will be school-based, affecting up to 10 percent of the school system’s 5,400 teachers. Most, if not all, of those teachers will be in secondary schools. The other job losses with be in central administration. The layoff notices are expected to go out over Christmas break — a tough call for both teachers and school officials.

However, the board essentially tied its own hands by allowing mismanagement to overwhelm the good that teachers do. As Republican Council member Carol Schwartz said, each year the school board asks for more money for one purpose, and each year the board gets it — only to spend the money on something else. The cuts were the only way to go.

But to avoid what the mayor has termed a “slow-moving train wreck,” both City Hall and the school system must develop a long-term strategy that keeps several factors in mind: 1) While the budget inches toward $1 billion, school enrollment continues to decline, as parents either move out of the city entirely or exercise their limited choice options; 2) the official enrollment is 67,000 students, but hundreds of children never show up for class with any regularity; 3) D.C. students rank at or near the bottom on standardized tests; 4) D.C. ranks near the top in per-pupil spending; D.C. has too many school buildings, and many of them are underutilized, while the costs of utilities and maintenance continue to rise.

If the board had made its most difficult choices in 2001 or even in 2002, teachers and other workers would be receiving merit pay bonuses this year instead of pink slips. We applaud the board as it hunkers down in the coming weeks.

As for the chief occupants of City Hall, it would be wise for them to present a united front and support the board as it seemingly ends its shell game and makes the tough calls. Such a move would go a long way toward reassuring taxpayers and other stakeholders that measurable reform steps are being taken. It is called leadership.

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