Written Testimony Submitted to the District of Columbia Council Committee on Education
District of Columbia Public Schools FY20 Budget Oversight Hearing
March 29, 2019
Thank you Chairman Mendelson, Councilmember Grosso and Members of the Committee on Education for holding the opportunity to provide testimony today. My name is Jessica Sutter and I am honored to represent Ward 6 on the DC State Board of Education.
During my campaign, I heard from parents and teachers about many things they care about in our public education system. One of the things I heard over and over again is that they crave a real voice in what happens for our children. The current DCPS budget process seems to be lacking in that regard. This year, as in so many years past, the school-level budgets were released to school principals and Local School Advisory Teams (LSATs) later than projected and with an incredibly short timeline for consideration and input. Additionally, there are few aspects of the school budget process that are open to input by parents and community members, and only slightly more that are open to discretion of the school principals. Many staffing allocations are mandated by the DCPS Comprehensive Staffing Model, and while I have spoken with principals who have been quite creative with their limited discretion, I wonder why Central Office is better equipped than a principal, Instructional Superintendent and LSAT to determine the needs of an individual school.
Annual changes to the budgeting process further complicate the short timeframe for school-based budget review and decision-making. In the FY2020 budgets, school security is included in each individual school’s budget allocation. However, in conversations with principals, it is not clear that the hiring or supervision of security personnel has changed. This means that individual schools must now bear the full cost of security without additional say in the selection or evaluation of those FTEs. DCPS says that the cost of security was added to the school-based budget allocations, but a comparison between FY19 and FY20 budgets suggests a murkier picture.
Greater visibility into in the year-to-year budget changes is needed in order for school teams, parents and community members to understand the impact of changes on school resources. Additional time for budget consideration and LSAT engagement is needed for school communities to feel confident that they understand the implications of budget changes for their children’s schools.
Another common refrain I heard from parents and community members is that they want DC Public Schools and our government officials to carry through on what they say they will do for our children. I have been a vocal supporter of the current state accountability system, the DC STAR Framework. It is a helpful tool to benchmark where our schools currently stand in helping their students reach the goals we have for all students in the District. Designed to show how a school is performing relative to the goals, the STAR Framework ratings tell state and LEA leaders which schools require additional support to help serve their students.
But the STAR Framework will only live up to its promise if we use the tool to actually provide meaningful support to schools that need it. In Ward 6, we had one DCPS school earn 1 star, two earn 2 stars, 10 earn 3 stars, three earn 4 stars and three earn 5 stars. Our schools have fared comparatively well this year, in terms of budget allocations and schools city-wide, but the rhyme or reason for funding level changes at individual schools is quite unclear. Of the 19 schools DC Public Schools in Ward 6, 17 saw budget increases, even after controlling for the transfer of security costs. Five schools saw increases of more than $500k. Three of those schools — Eliot-Hine MS, Eastern HS, Miner ES, and Stuart-Hobson MS — have projected enrollment increases. Two — Amidon-Bowen ES and Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan — have projected losses. (As a side-note, while Amidon-Bowen is projected to lose 10 students in FY20, I spoke with an in-boundary PK4 parent today whose child is 67 on the waiting list for the school.) Three of the five schools — Hine, Eastern & Amidon-Bowen — have one or two stars. On the other hand, another Ward 6 school, Payne Elementary, is expecting a double-digit enrollment increase — 29 students -but is expecting only an $87,00 increase. That math works out to be only an additional $3000 per projected additional student. Looking at at-risk rates, at special education rates, or any other number of variables does not seem to help make sense of the budget allocations or changes, either.
Something is wrong. Budget changes should be easier to understand with a Universal Per Pupil Funding Formula. Schools enrolling more students should see budget increases. Schools serving higher percentages of at-risk students or special education students should have larger budgets than similarly sized schools with fewer at-risk or special education students. When equity is a buzzword on lips of so many education and government leaders, schools serving students with greater needs should see larger annual budget increases. Schools earning 1 or 2 stars, indicating a need for significant support to increase student outcomes, should see the most significant investment of financial resources. These significant increases are not happening, which raises significant questions about the District’s commitment to resource equity and to meaningful support for school improvement.
At a time when we know our children need more, we seem to be giving them less. We know they need more exposure to content-rich instruction in all subjects, including science and social studies and music and the arts. We know they need more consistency in the teachers and staff they see in their school buildings year-over-year. We know they need access to school-based mental health care. We know they need trauma-informed instruction. We know they need play spaces, school gardens and physical and health education. We know they need access to school nurses.
Because we know these things, we must invest in our students. We must make our investments equitable. We must correct for past disinvestment in schools and communities. We must create budget processes that allow for meaningful engagement of parents, teachers and school communities via LSATs. We must ensure that school-based budgets reflect the needs of the students served by those schools. We must do these things because our students are counting on us and their educational lives depend on it.