Testimony for Apr 17, 2013 Council Hearing on School Budget by Committee on Education‏ – by Caryn Ernst

Written Testimony of 

Caryn Ernst

716 15th Street SE

Washington, DC 20003 

To the Council of the District of Columbia Committee on Education

Oversight Hearing on the Proposed Fiscal Year 2014 Budget of the

District of Columbia Public Schools

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

As the PTA President of the Capitol Hill Cluster School, I am testifying today to oppose the severe cuts to the budgets for both Stuart Hobson Middle School and Watkins Elementary School, two of the three campuses of the Cluster School.

Due to a combination of policy and budget decisions, DCPS’ 2014 budget is resulting in the loss of 8 ½ staff positions at Stuart Hobson and the loss of 4 staff positions at Watkins.  Both campuses have historically had full enrollment and waiting lists, which will be the case again this year.  But we will have substantially fewer staff to support those students.

Our budgets are reduced as a result of:

  1. Parents being allowed to maintain dual enrollment at multiple public and charter schools, which was exacerbated by the opening of a new Middle School last Fall in our feeder area.
  2. DCPS’ decision to change the small school definition from 300 to 400 students, which means that now ½ of DCPS students are enrolled in small schools that are allocated lower staffing levels.
  3. DCPS’ overall disinvestment in Middle Schools in this year’s budget and its inexplicable decision to reduce or eliminate world languages at the Middle School level, while requiring part-time language instruction at the elementary level.
  4. DCPS policy to “normalize” school budgets and the resulting reduction in school’s flexible non-personnel budgets, which the Cluster has used to fund additional staffing in the past.

The combination of these policy and budget changes has resulted in the loss at Stuart Hobson of:

  • 3 Spanish teachers
  • 1 technology teacher, leaving a ¼ million technology lab unstaffed
  • 1 math resource teacher
  • 1 aide
  • 2 Special Education teachers, and
  • ½ time librarian

At Watkins, these changes have led to the loss of:

  • 2 Reading resource teacher
  • 1 Math resource teacher
  • 1 guidance counselor

Allowing Dual Enrollment at Public and Charter Schools

As you know, parents are currently allowed to hold enrollment slots at multiple public and charter schools.  This means that Principals have no way of knowing how many students will actually show up the first day of school, making class and grade level planning challenging and making it impossible to plan for appropriate classroom sizes.

Last August, Stuart Hobson was fully enrolled with a waiting list. Our Principal spent much of the Summer turning away students from our waiting list to avoid the problem we had the previous year of being OVER-ENROLLED and having unreasonably large classroom sizes.  However, a new charter middle school was opening in our feeder area, which had been marketing heavily to local elementary schools.  Unbeknownst to the Principal, 45 students were holding enrollment slots at multiple schools and chose not to send their children to Stuart Hobson the first day of school.

The Cluster has been told that if we reach full enrollment this Spring DCPS will return ONE STAFF POSITION to our budget, which means we will continue to be down 7 ½ staff positions from this year with all of our slots filled.  This is a budgeting bait and switch, and parents know it.  Parents are unwilling to enroll their children in a middle school that they know has been severely under-resourced, creating a self-fulfilling enrollment prophesy.

DCPS needs to guarantee that if we get Stuart Hobson fully enrolled this Spring our budget will be fully restored, which would include all of the staff reductions based on low enrollment projections, as well as all staff reductions that resulted from designating Stuart Hobson as a small school, when they inaccurately projected that we would drop below 400.

The Impact of “Normalizing” Across all DCPS Schools 

I applaud DCPS’ stated goal of equalizing investments across all of its schools so that all students have access to the same quality education.  However, DCPS’ strategy for achieving that goal is to gut the programs at many of the most successful schools in the District, in order to spread those resources across the other schools.  Rather than being a strategy for success, this is a recipe for failure.

We know what success looks like in DC Public Schools.  Schools with a track record of success are in high demand.  Our strategy for created more successful schools should be to replicate successful programs, not decimate them.

Cutting key programs is not a strategy for success.  Parents tell me that the loss of Spanish at Stuart Hobson is a deal breaker. With world languages an entry requirement for the application-only High Schools, a middle school without world language puts a child at a serious disadvantage.  As a result, they are bailing for Charter Schools where world languages, science and other programs continue to be funded.

During a time when the District of Columbia is experiencing growth and prosperity, it is inexcusable that our public schools seem to be running on an austerity budget.  Every elected official in this city ran on a platform of investing in our public schools. Well now is the time to invest in replicating success, not decimating it.

1) The Mayor and City Council should increase funding for public schools.

2) Investments should go directly to schools, not central administration.

3) DCPS should dramatically reduce spending on central administration, put master teachers back in classrooms, return instruction superintendents to Principal positions.  We don’t need more administration, we need more teachers for our students.

Loss of Flexible Spending Budgets for Schools

By “normalizing” school budgets DCPS is dramatically reducing the flexible spending budgets that schools have relied on every year.  Those funds have theoretically been replaced with mandated staff positions, but many of the new mandated staff positions, like language at the elementary school level, aren’t actually being funded at almost half of the schools.  This means that schools are having to give up other staff in order to meet new requirements.  The loss of flexible spending for schools will undermine many schools, particularly the Capitol Hill Cluster School, where flexible funds have paid for additional resource teachers.  Losing these funds will cost four positions at Watkins Elementary– two reading resource teachers, a math resource teacher and a guidance counselor.

Watkins is an incredibly diverse school, both economically and academically and we rely on the resource teachers to help support our students who are struggling. Removing these flexible funds robs our talented Principals of the ability to make the strategic investments needed in their specific circumstances, and to differentiate their school from others.  At a time when DCPS has been investing heavily in its Principals, why would this budget limit their ability to deliver the high-quality education in the most appropriate manner?   The loss of these four resource teachers will not only limit the amount of support those students get, it will also make it impossible for the school to provide adequate staffing to monitor lunch and recess without violating teacher contracts and their right to time during the day for instructional planning.

In the best schools in the District, some of the outstanding Principals that DCPS has hired in recent years have used flexible funds to invest in the staff, programs and materials that they feel are most critical to the success of their students and their school, and to differentiate their school from others.  Their ability to do that is now severely limited.

Transparency in Budgeting 

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the reduction in flexible spending, as well as many of the other budget changes, is how these changes are not being implemented in a transparent way.  The changes have been hidden in opaque budgets that make comparisons next to impossible, and that hide what percentage of funds are actually going to central office.  Many costs that were previously in the central administrative budget are now being pushed to individual school budgets, but with no additional funds to cover them.

The official DCPS budget shows Watkins only having a modest budget reduction, yet we’re losing 4 resource teachers.  The math doesn’t add up, which makes it difficult not to conclude that the budget information is being purposefully obfuscated.

I became even more convinced of this at a recent meeting of the Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization, a coalition of PTA’s in Capitol Hill, when at least 4 of the PTAs reported that their Principal had been told to “get their parents under control,” and stop them from advocating on the budget changes.

I would hope that DCPS understands that the parents who don’t advocate on behalf of their schools are the ones who quietly leave DCPS in favor of Charter Schools, and that it’s the parents who take the time and effort to support their school who are committed to working with their teachers, Principals and DCPS to make our school system the best it can be.  I would think they would welcome our involvement, not discourage it.

In summary:

1) DCPS needs to restore flexible funding levels for all schools and give Principals the ability to invest in the staffing and programs most critical to the success of their school.

2) DCPS needs to make school budgets more transparent, which includes making transparent year to year budget comparisons, and making budget changes between central administration and schools clear and upfront.

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