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Why is my school's budget being cut?
DC Public Schools has (preliminarily) cut a lot of schools' budgets for next year. What is going on, and why?
Many parents have asked me — on the playground at my child’s school, at playdates with children at other schools, and at social events — what is going on with school budgets. Here is a Frequently Asked Questions to try to explain what many people are asking.
Is my school’s budget being cut?
There’s a good chance it is. DCPS recently published what are called Initial Budget Allocations for each school. This is a preliminary amount of money the DCPS administration thinks that school should get for the 2023-2024 school year.
Out of DCPS’s 116 schools open this year, 67 (more than half) received an Initial Budget Allocation that was less than their budget this year. They are all over the city, not concentrated in one area. You can see if your school is among them at this spreadsheet.
24 schools (red bars in the chart) got cut by 5% from last year’s, which is the biggest cut allowed by an older law the administration is following. (As I’ll discuss below, a newer law, which the administration is NOT following, disallows even those cuts and many smaller cuts too.)
This is still subject to change, as we’ll discuss below. However, it has immediate impacts. Each principal already had to formulate a budget for next year that fits within the Initial Budget Allocation. Local School Advisory Teams, which are committees at each school made up of some elected parents and some appointed teachers & staff, had to review and discuss them.
Most of all, teachers who may not have jobs next year have been told as much, and may be looking for other jobs. In the past, a preliminary cut has often led to a school losing valued teachers even if the cut gets reversed.
Why does DCPS want to cut my school?
DCPS was working for a few years on a new “budget model,” the formulas and spreadsheets which decide how much each school gets. They rolled out the new model in the spring of 2022, with schools’ budget allocations for the 2022-23 school year (the one we are in now).
This new model used a very different means of calculating budgets, and so for many schools the amount the basic formula spit out was considerably higher or lower (as much as 20% higher or lower) than before.
For schools that were “winners,” that’s very exciting (and probably the money will be very helpful!) For schools that were “losers,” DCPS papered over losses for 2022-23 by providing a variety of “stabilization” funds including a “mayor’s recovery fund” that came with no information about how it was allocated. (Some elected councilmembers pointed out that it was an election year, and keeping cuts temporarily at zero was helpful for the mayor’s campaign.)
But, that temporary no-cuts policy only lasted a year, and this year, the losing schools saw cuts. For schools whose base funding would drop more than 5% under the new model, a “stabilization” law caps the cut at 5%, so that’s all schools saw this year, but there’s every reason to believe the 5% cuts would continue until the school has fully reached the new baseline.
It’s not clear entirely why some schools are “losers” exactly. One goal of the model was to shift funding toward higher-need schools, meaning schools with low rates of at-risk students (students from very low-income families, or various other criteria) were more likely to lose out. But it’s not just them; schools like LaSalle-Backus Elementary (north of Fort Totten), with a typical level of need for DCPS, or Anacostia High School or Garfield Elementary (both in Ward 8, and with a high level of need) also were significant “losers,” among many other examples.
I posed a number of questions about the model and how it ended up affecting various schools back when the model came out, but haven’t ever gotten answers from DCPS despite multiple attempts.
I heard these cuts are illegal. Are they?
The DC Council wasn’t pleased with the new budget model rollout. To begin with, councilmembers asked, in a unanimous letter led by Christina Henderson (at-large) in December 2021, for the specific impacts on schools of the forthcoming budget model. DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee refused.
Then, councilmembers didn’t want to see school budgets cut. They’ve seen proposed cuts in past years and reversed those cuts, but seen schools lose valued teachers in the interim.
Chairman Phil Mendelson, who oversees education, wrote a law called the Schools First in Budgeting Act, which sought to limit proposed cuts. It says DCPS should compute school budgets starting with the past year’s budget. Increase the budget by the amount teacher pay has increased (or some other factors). Then increase or decrease if there has been enough enrollment change to add or remove a classroom, or for changes to meet the needs of at-risk, special education, and english language learner students.
It doesn’t stop any school’s budget from being cut, especially if its population of high-need students decreases, but it stops cuts solely due to the budget model spitting out a lower number for the school.
The council unanimously passed this bill in December. So that’s the end of it?
Apparently not. Chancellor Lewis Ferebee and Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said the school budgets for next year weren’t going to follow the law, and indeed, when they came out in late February (just before a school vacation week!), they didn’t.
Wait, the mayor can just ignore laws? Since when?
No, the mayor is not supposed to be able to ignore laws, and many councilmembers are quite frustrated, particularly Mendelson, who passed this law specifically to forestall this exact situation.
The law requires the mayor to post budgets, compliant with Schools First, by a set date — this year, February 8 — and DCPS didn’t give schools any budgets, let alone Schools First compliant ones. The budgets came out on February 15, two days before a school vacation, and didn’t follow this law.
When the mayor does submit the budget to the council, there’s always an accompanying package of changes to laws needed to implement the budget, called the Budget Support Act. She may just throw in a line that repeals the Schools First act. Of course, the council gets the final say in the budget and doesn’t have to accept a Schools First repeal.
Who can reverse the cuts?
The DC Council ultimately passes the budget. Whatever the mayor proposes, the council can change, if the members want to.
Where would the money come from to reverse the cuts?
If the mayor proposes a budget with cuts to schools and the council wants to reverse them, they need to figure out where to move money from. The amount needed is probably approximately $22 million across about 80 schools. (I’ll dig into those numbers more in the future.)
There are three options, but really two, and the council could do some combination of these.
Take money away from some schools which got more money this year. This is probably not desirable, and also unlikely. Some schools did benefit, and those schools very likely do indeed deserve more money! (Probably all schools do, but maybe some of these schools do even more.) I haven’t heard anyone suggest this.
Take money from the central office. DCPS’s central office has a budget of about $284 million. So we’re talking about 8%. Many people I talk to express considerable amazement that the central office spends $284 million a year. Some of it covers services to schools that aren’t on the schools’ budgets, like paying for security guards or occupational therapists. But while there’s far from unanimity, a fair number of people have argued that there are a lot of functions that aren’t necessary, or maybe even make extra work for principals and teachers. (There are also many valuable functions, to be sure.)
Move money from outside DCPS. The council can move money from elsewhere in the education budget, or anywhere else in the city’s budget. One possible challenge is that under the laws governing charter schools, which make up about 50% of DC publicly-funded school students, money spent on education should be divvied up evenly, according to another formula called the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula or UPSFF. Therefore, adding $20 million to DCPS from outside likely costs about $40 million, since $20 million would go to charters also, if the council doesn’t also change the UPSFF law.
The mayor is supposed to submit her budget to the council on March 22. The council then holds hearings on all of the agency budgets and votes on the final budget first on May 16 and then for the second time on May 30.
If the council restores funding, schools will then be able to amend their budgets and teachers will know their jobs are safe in June. That may not stop some people from finding other jobs in the meantime — and it’s hard to blame them, as there’s no guarantee the budgets are restored until it actually happens.
What can I do if I have opinions about this?
You can write your councilmember. First, figure out which ward in DC you live in here. Then, go to the list of councilmembers and email that person, plus the four at-large members (Anita Bonds, Christina Henderson, Kenyan McDuffie, and Robert White), and Chairman Phil Mendelson. Let them know what you think about budget changes at your school. You don’t have to be an expert, just speak from your own experience and what you child’s school means to them and you.
Also, subscribe to this newsletter for now and let other people know. I hope to put more information here about the budget process, and maybe other topics — not totally sure yet.
Going forward, I’d like to see DCPS not cut some schools, but also whenever possible add funds to schools with the most need. And then, we should talk about planning for the future of schools and how to ensure everyone gets a good education.