- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2007

The D.C. Council this month approved two important pieces of legislation affecting education. One, an emergency measure OK’ed on April 3, gave the go ahead to release $250 million for school modernization. The other, which passed Thursday, gave final approval to Mayor Adrian Fenty’s school reform plan. There’s another school matter that has yet to be resolved, and that’s the annual budget for D.C. Public Schools.

The school system’s proposed budget for next fiscal year is $850,000 and the mayor’s is $796,000. The mayor’s spending plan is based on declining DCPS enrollment, a trend that began when charter schools first opened in 1996. Since then, charter schools have grown from about 300 students to nearly 20,000, with DCPS losing several hundred students each year (and sometimes a couple thousand). Taking a pragmatic approach to funding schools, the Fenty administration based its budget plan on that DCPS enrollment trend.

But critics say hold on. They complain that chaos could erupt next school year if DCPS enrolls more students than the Fenty plan budgets for, and Superintendent Clifford Janey called the mayor’s plan “risky.” Funding operating costs for DCPS is inherently risky, but we’re hopeful that School Board President Robert Bobb and the Fenty administration will reconcile the difference.

Our chief concern at this juncture is funding and implementing the superintendent’s Master Facilities Plan, which was unveiled last fall. The school system’s plan calls for spending $2.3 billion over 10 years to renovate all schoolhouses, while City Hall is considering a 15-year, $2.7 billion modernization plan (and a possible 12-year plan for which definitive data is unavailable).

No matter which approach is taken, we urge lawmakers and policy-makers to keep in mind that the city’s credibility on Wall Street hangs in the balance. Indeed, as Council Chairman Vince Gray already knows, any capital plan would call for borrowing money, and if the calculations for borrowing and spending aren’t right on the money, the city faces spending gaps. Whether securitized or general-obligation-bond debt, Wall Street would still be the ultimate judge.

Regardless of whether a 10- 12- or 15-year modernization plan is adopted, Wall Street’s concerns will be heightened. In fact, rating firms’ fears were heightened during the baseball stadium giveaway in 2005, and for good reasons — the District’s per-capita debt is the highest in the country at nearly $9,000. (New York City’s by comparison is under $6,000 and Boston’s is only $1,500.)

With numerous capital projects on the drawing board or in the pipeline, City Hall, now that it has granted itself extraordinary control over DCPS, can’t afford to flub this one. Getting the funding right for the master facilities plan the first time is key to the city’s economic future.

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