- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

The D.C. Inspector General has issued yet another critical report on D.C. Public Schools, this one focusing on the failure of bureaucrats to develop, implement and use a computerized system to track students. As a result, school officials cannot say with reasonable certainty which students are in which schools on any given day. If school authorities cannot do that, then they cannot justify spending 62 percent of the $1 billion budget on personnel.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act mandates that school systems collect information on safety and security so that students in troubled schools can be offered such options as attending a safer or academically better school, or be offered tutoring programs. While the D.C. school system does gather some data regarding safety and security, it does not follow through on its own reporting. In short, that means D.C. school officials fail to report to federal authorities — as well as parents and teachers — critical information that determines whether a school is relatively safe or “persistently dangerous.”

The IG’s audit, dated March 21, compares DCPS safety and security practices with those of five other school systems — Atlanta, Baltimore, Montgomery County, Philadelphia and St. Louis. The audit also identifies best practices in those other school systems and offers benchmarks for improvement in D.C. schools. As Jim McElhatton reported yesterday in a front-page story: “D.C. Public Schools officials spent $4.5 million on a system to account for the student population on any given day, but they blamed “prolonged budget problems and the lack of available funds for the long delays in completing the initiative.” The latest finding follows other news stories by Mr. McElhatton that show that DCPS reported “seriously flawed” truancy numbers to federal authorities.

The complaints outlined by school officials themselves are what’s “seriously flawed,” too. In fact, their complaint about “the lack of available funds” simply does not fly. The numbers speak for themselves: The IG says that DCPS spends $15 million, or $230 on each student, making it “the highest per-student expenditure for security” and ranking it second in total fiscal 2004 budgeted dollars for school security” among the six systems. Only Philadelphia spends more (roughly $308,000) more, yet Philadelphia has more school facilities to secure that the District — 276 vs. 167.

If DCPS does “lack available funds,” it is because school officials themselves miss funding opportunities. For example, the federal government gave $25.5 million to three D.C. agencies as part of a post-September 11 homeland security funding package, with more than half of those funds ($14.5 million) going to DCPS. However, a 2003 report by the IG cites the loss of $4.5 million of those funds because DCPS failed to “obligate these monies” in a timely manner.

Also, a 2004 audit uncovers much of what is wrong on the D.C. school safety-and-security front. As the IG says in that 2004 audit: “We identified serious security weaknesses at all of the 15 District elementary, middle, and high schools we visited. The three security weaknesses that posed the greatest problems at all of the schools visited included: (a) insufficient door security; (b) broken surveillance equipment; and (c) the inadequacy of contracted security personnel. These conditions existed because DCPS has not established a comprehensive plan to address the safety and security issues within the District’s school system and has not conducted risk assessments to address the unique safety and physical security concerns at District schools. As a result, the District’s schools remain vulnerable to planned or random acts of violence that could otherwise be reduced through improved security measures and the implementation of sound policy guidelines.” Indeed, the pivotal phrasing in the 2004 audit is “posed the greatest problems” — words that sound several alarms because the safety of children is at stake.

As Mr. McElhatton reported earlier this month: D.C. Auditor Deborah Nichols “has issued eight audits on the school system since 2001 … [and] findings of mismanagement have surfaced repeatedly in previous inquiries. The office has made 107 recommendations to improve school system operations in the past four years but fewer than half have been acted on … Overall, I would say the easier recommendations have been implemented … The more difficult … have not been implemented at all.”

A comprehensive 1996 report of DCPS, “Children in Crisis,” is a brutal but honest assessment: “In virtually every area, and for every grade level, the system has failed to provide our children with a quality education and safe environment in which to learn.” Each of the separate findings is damning in its own way — regardless of who is in City Hall, who is on the school board and who is seated in the superintendent’s chair. Children are not receiving a quality education, and schools are neither safe nor secure. That’s a dangerous mix in any city — and a costly embarrassment in the nation’s capital.

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