- The Washington Times - Monday, December 6, 2010

New funding for D.C. schools could be at the center of a major new political tug of war for Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray, who is pushing for even bigger savings as D.C. lawmakers prepare to cast their first votes Tuesday on a package of fiscal 2011 budget cuts.

Fighting the cuts, District teachers are complaining of “mice and rodent” infestations stemming from the city’s new “healthy schools” initiative, and interim Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson is fighting to protect special-education reforms from the budget knife.

Both programs are key Gray initiatives, and both are on the chopping block because outgoing Mayor Adrian M. Fenty requested just $161 million in cuts to close a $188 million budget gap, while Mr. Gray, as D.C. Council chairman, is rallying his colleagues around a higher target of $238 million.

Mr. Gray has said he wants the extra $50 million to have in a reserve account “to cover unforeseen pressures.”

While Mr. Fenty does not have to consider long-term budget implications, he did propose saving the city $4.6 million by delaying the implementation of the healthy schools initiative, which mandates healthier school meals and increased exercise for students, and also proposed saving another $30 million by mainstreaming special-needs students.

While the school budget battle comes to a head, Michelle Rhee, the controversial school chief under Mr. Fenty, announced Monday that she is launching a nonprofit education organization based in Washington.

Ms. Rhee said the goals of the group, to be known as StudentsFirst, are to attract 1 million members in the next year and to raise $1 billion. She said her group will be nonpartisan but will pressure elected officials and press for changes in legislation.

Mayor-elect Gray and council member Mary Cheh co-sponsored the Healthy Schools Act and orchestrated unanimous passage of the bill in May. Mrs. Cheh has scheduled a status hearing on the law on Thursday.

But Nathan Saunders, the new president of the Washington Teachers Union, questioned whether the program is addressing long-standing health issues or creating new ones.

“In many elementary schools, teachers are required to serve food [amid] infestations of mice and rodents,” he said. “The food may not be warmed or cooled properly.”

As for special education, Mr. Gray, who has spent much of his career in the public and private social-services sector, faces another political dilemma — fulfilling a promise to reform special education and save the city money.

Having publicized the fact that $43 million in special-education overruns account for nearly half of the citys $88 million in spending pressures for the current fiscal year, Mr. Gray must now square policy with politics.

The $43 million includes pay raises; rental costs; and rising tuition, lodging and transportation spending for out-of-state special-education placements, which Ms. Henderson, who last month replaced Ms. Rhee as schools chief, hasnt disputed. But she said the problem with special-ed spending is underfunding, not overspending.

“Special education was underbudgeted for the last few fiscal years, which is leading to reports of overspending. In fact, special-education spending has remained constant for the past few years,” she said.

Both Ms. Henderson and Mr. Gray have promised to curb the costs of educating special-needs students.

The proposal currently under consideration calls for saving $21.9 million by reducing the number of special-needs students in nonpublic schools and by redirecting funds to support the D.C. Public Schools’ special-education capacity.

Ms. Henderson insisted that spending levels for special-education programs are not the problem and said she is working with the mayor and city financial officials “to make sure our budget is solid and financial systems correctly portray where we have areas of overspending.”

Mr. Saunders, whose union strongly backed Mr. Gray over Mr. Fenty in the Democratic mayoral primary, said actions taken at City Hall speak louder than rhetoric. City officials, he said, outline special-education reforms while at the same time firing special-education teachers and cutting resources.

“Special education is close and dear to me,” said Mr. Saunders, but the talk “we are hearing runs totally contrary to reality.”

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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