Each year, public school principals in the District craft the budget for the next school year in collaboration with a group of parents, teachers and staff members known as the Local School Advisory Team (LSAT).
The process, which often takes place over the course of two weeks, often reveals the limitations of one-time funding sources and an enrollment-based budget model that LSAT members described as not considerate of students’ socioemotional needs, mid-year enrollment bumps, inflation and increases in teacher union personnel fees.
In regard to student enrollment, some LSAT members said DCPS’ enrollment projections don’t take into account how many families kept students home at the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic year. That’s why, at one Southeast-based middle school, LSAT members grappled with how best to prepare for the anticipated enrollment increase that would most likely happen in October and in the spring as students incrementally return to their neighborhood school.
An LSAT member who requested anonymity said that, in order to hire more core-subject area teachers and keep class sizes below 25 students, their principal triggered the transfer of a special education coordinator to another school. They did the same for Teacher Leadership Innovation staff members.
The budget for the 2022-2023 academic year also reduces Spanish, music and dance instructor roles to part-time while some staff members, in addition to their primary roles, will have to serve as intervention specialists and instructional coaches.
This happens at a school where nearly 90 percent of the student population has been designated as behind grade level and in need of intervention services.
“The central office wants us to implement these restorative practices and not have students suspended from school but they don’t give us money to staff those positions,” the LSAT member said. “We have to be super creative in dividing up positions to be able to do that. You need to make judgment calls about what students need, but the budget doesn’t serve those types of students.”
Some LSATs are at Odds with Principals, DCPS Central Office
DCPS receives local dollars, federal grants and other funds that get disseminated throughout the public and public charter schools. Earlier this year, D.C. Mayor Bowser (D) announced an increase in per-pupil funding of 5.9 percent, or $2.1 billion.
Officials in DCPS’ central office also said the Fiscal Year 2023 budget ensures that public schools don’t receive less than had been allocated to them in years past.
In DCPS’ budget model, the amount allocated to each school depends heavily on enrollment projections. Other factors include the composition of the student population, including special education students and those designated as at-risk and English language learners. Once principals receive their budget allocation, they collaborate with LSAT members to determine how to craft a budget that best meets students’ needs and fulfill their obligations to the DCPS central office.
For the last few years, LSAT members at McKinley Technology High School [MTHS] in Northeast initially found it difficult to engage the budget development process, due to what they described as their principal’s limited availability and DCPS’ penchant for releasing budget allocations late and requesting documents within a short timeframe.
In recounting the events of this budget season, MTHS LSAT Co-Chair Theodora Brown said team members met with the principal one time during the planning process because of scheduling challenges brought on by the principal’s retirement. They only had a few days, including the weekend of President’s Day, to determine how MTHS spent this year’s school budget and use that information, along with what MTHS LSAT members requested, to make recommendations.
Brown said it remains to be determined if the MTHS LSAT’s recommendations have been infused in MTHS’ budget.
While MTHS doesn’t stand to lose any staff positions next school year, LSAT members still have questions about how Title 1 funds have been allocated. Similar questions have been raised about funding designated for students’ socioemotional supports. Concerns also center on how to mitigate classroom overcrowding and ensure quality instruction.
“We don’t always have access to the data to make the best decisions as an LSAT,” said Brown, a Ward 5 resident and mother of an MTHS alumnus.
“Over the last five years, we’ve managed to work with a principal who initially resisted parental involvement in the budget development process,” Brown added.
“I believed then that she did not take the deliberations of the MTHS LSAT seriously. At the end of the day, it became a guessing game when she’s not providing data to support her positions.”
Community Members Express Concern about Funding Sources, Inflation
Parents who enroll their young ones in Key Elementary School in Northwest espouse their love for public education and Key Elementary’s ability to tend to the needs of all students, especially amid a pandemic that has exacerbated learning loss.
That’s why, since receiving the FY 2022-2023 budget allocation, which includes one-time funds for Key, some of those parents have raised concerns about the eventual loss of those one-time funds and its effects on programming at Key and other schools during the 2023-2024 academic year.
While Key LSAT Co-Chair Jeremy Joseph said that the mayor’s FY 2022 budget allocation, with the inclusion of one-time funds, adequately funds schools during the 2022-2023 school year, he said Key and other schools could face budget shortfalls during the following year once those one-time funds disappear.
Such a situation, Joseph said, would result in the loss of up to eight staff members, which would then cause class sizes to increase to at least 30 students. Without that one-time funding, Key could also lose instructional coaches.
“With Key’s current funding, class sizes are reasonable and we have instructional coaches who work closely with students to help them level up,” said Joseph, the parent of a Key student.
“There’s a math coach and reading coach who also works with teachers and gives them ideas to make sure students reach their full potential. When you start cutting funding so severely, you could lose those interconnected pieces,” he added.
At School Without Walls, located on the campus of The George Washington University, LSAT members continue to advocate against a budget model they said places three teaching positions on the chopping block next year and splits a social worker’s attention between School Without Walls and other public schools.
Though School Without Walls’ funding remains the same, LSAT members said inflation and an increase in Washington Teachers’ Union personnel fees makes it harder to provide programming that attracts students from all of the District’s eight wards. Marion Babcock, a Ward 5 parent and LSAT co-chair at School Without Walls, said a failure to take that into consideration weakens DCPS’ budget equity model, which she commended as well-intended and necessary.
“The funding formula also needs to look at school programming. We have a good program that doesn’t seem to be recognized,” Babcock said.
“We get that we have a bunch of talent [but] we’re holding steady to ensure students are eligible and ready for college,” she added.
“We want to make sure our educational program holds up that end of the bargain. Our program gets $11,000 per student but we lose every year unless parents from all wards make a ruckus.”