- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The D.C. Council on Tuesday approved a $5.4 billion budget for fiscal 2010 after shifting nearly $30 million allocated for city schools over the objections of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

Council members voted to move $27.5 million in city school funding to a “non-departmental line” - essentially reserving the money until an October audit provides more information about enrollment in city schools.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray said that despite years of declining enrollment in city schools and a combined total of about 70,300 students in public and charter schools this year, the mayor’s budget suggested enrollment would spike next year to about 73,000 students. He said the projections from the mayor’s office were not “adequately justified.”

The chairman stressed that the move was not a cut and said “the money is there for education purposes.”

“We have tried hard to figure out where these students are coming from,” Mr. Gray said. “The answers at this stage are unconvincing.”

Council member Marion Barry also said Mr. Fenty’s funding proposal “defies all logic of any kind.”

“How can we believe these numbers?” said Mr. Barry, Ward 8 Democrat. “I don’t believe them.”

The move prompted a quick response from Ms. Rhee, who said in a letter to Mr. Gray that the action would cause officials to reduce the budget of local schools, hamper efforts to fill teacher vacancies and force the elimination of teaching positions.

Ms. Rhee also said the audit data, and thus the funding, would not be available until January and that staffing and financial decisions must be made much earlier.

“Whether or not this action is called a budget ‘cut,’ the fact is that council’s action reduces the DCPS budget by $27 million,” the chancellor wrote, adding that the money equates to 338 teachers.

Mr. Gray later countered that enrollment numbers would be available within a week of the audit in October.

The budget approved by the 13-member council closes an $800 million shortfall in city finances but also made several other substantial changes to the spending plan submitted by Mr. Fenty in March.

Council members cut $20 million from the city’s summer jobs program and used some of the funds to restore nearly $17 million to the funding allotment for charter school facilities.

Members also struck Mr. Fenty’s proposed $51 annual fee for residents to pay for streetlight maintenance and kept intact their reduction from $4 million to $778,000 in funding for the office of Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso.

Other approved measures include Mr. Fenty’s expansion of a program that allows inmates to earn time off of their sentences and enhancement of automated enforcement initiatives.

The council also voted to cut Mr. Fenty’s plans to increase the city’s 911 phone charges and restore cost-of-living adjustments for the city’s standard deduction and personal exemption in fiscal 2010 and the property tax homestead deduction in 2011.

“There are things I didn’t get, things I don’t like, but all in all I think this is a masterful piece of work,” said council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat.

• Gary Emerling can be reached at gemerling@washingtontimes.com.

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