When D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced in January that she wanted to close 15 schools, she said the downsizing would help create a stronger school system with rich academic offerings, a system that could compete with the city’s charter schools.
But Henderson’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget has raised concerns about her ability to fulfill that promise. The $818 million spending plan, an increase of less than 1 percent from this year’s budget, calls for some new investments, but it requires cuts to staff and programs at dozens of schools, including some where enrollment is holding steady or rising.
Henderson faced skepticism Thursday when she testified before the D.C. Council’s Education Committee. Committee members blasted the spending cuts and expressed concern that they could cripple efforts to persuade parents to send their children to the city’s traditional public schools.
Henderson told the committee that she has little choice but to shift resources because of the system’s failure to meet enrollment projections. The system received per-pupil funding this year for a projected enrollment of about 47,000 students, but only 45,500 showed up. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has said he was obligated to use a more realistic number for next year: 46,060.
“We would have to take the money from somewhere else,” Henderson told the committee. “We are doing the best we can with the hand we were dealt.”
Parents and politicians say the reductions threaten families’ faith in the school system, particularly in nonselective high schools and middle schools, many of which are facing deep cuts. At Stuart-Hobson Middle School on Capitol Hill, where enrollment is projected to rise but the budget would be sliced by 12 percent, students would be able to take a foreign language only if parents raised enough money to hire an after-school teacher.
“The message that [D.C. Public Schools] sends to families looking for anything other than the bare minimum is, ‘Go to charters,’ ” said Laura Marks, a PTA member at Watkins Elementary, which is a feeder school for Stuart-Hobson. “It’s like DCPS has given up the game at middle school. They’re just walking away from it.”
Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Education Committee, said Henderson and Gray should have done more to reallocate resources so that no school experiences a cut of more than 5 percent. Catania said several schools — including Eliot-Hine Middle School, Ballou Senior High School and Stuart-Hobson — are looking at cuts of at least 10 percent.
“You are left to defend a budget that in many ways is indefensible,” Catania told Henderson. “The responsibility of this budget rests with the mayor.”
Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who, like Catania, is considering challenging Gray in next year’s mayoral election, said the school budget is unacceptable. Wells said many of the proposed cuts would hit schools on Capitol Hill, which he represents.
“The greatest cuts have been in the schools that we’ve had the greatest challenge getting the parents of Washington D.C. to trust them,” Wells said. “I am very concerned you will not be able to convince parents to stay in DCPS at the middle school level with this budget,” Wells said.
Also Thursday, Catania clashed with Henderson over funding for summer school after it was disclosed this week that the city plans to switch to invitation-only enrollment because of limited resources. That could leave hundreds of low-performing students out of the picture.
Henderson said the new approach, which allows for 2,700 summer school slots, is needed because only $2.3 million is budgeted this year. Catania said he plans to ask Gray to use part of the city’s $400 million fiscal 2013 surplus to expand eligibility for summer school.
“It just seems we need a more robust, targeted, thoughtful use of summer school,” he said. “We have a whole bunch of young people who simply cascade through the system until they hit the point of failure.”
Henderson said that the budget includes a $7 million increase for 2014 and that 90 schools — about 82 percent of the system — will see an increase in funding. She said the budget also includes money to boost literacy and to guarantee that every elementary school student has “exposure” to art, music, physical education and a foreign language each week.
The system plans to hire 56 additional art, music, PE and foreign language teachers along with 28 additional social workers.
“I believe that this budget is well built to help us achieve the ambitious goals that we set for ourselves,” Henderson said.
Parents say that individual school enrollment estimates seem unfairly low and that the low projections lead to program cuts, which drive families away.