The Districts Dime

Ensuring Low-Income Kids Get the Behavioral Health Services They Need

February 13th, 2015 | by Wes Rivers

There is a tremendous need for mental health services among the District’s middle and high school students, especially in our poorest and lowest-performing schools. And schools are an ideal place to identify kids in needs and have trusted adults connect them to services. That’s why DC’s Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) should expand and improve mental health services in schools and coordinate with other agencies, such as Department of Health, to make sure kids are referred to the right programs. Here is how:

Expand school-based mental health and improve monitoring of student progress to make sure services are making a difference. The school-based mental health program puts mental health professionals in schools to provide early intervention with students and to treat kids with more serious issues. The program only operates in 69 schools, with funding available to expand to six more. Last school-year, of 1,700 students referred to the program, only 1,200 were assessed and referred to additional services and only half of those assessed received treatment from a clinician.

DC needs to track the progress of those who received treatment, to help understand the best ways to improve services. Not all of the students may need intensive services, but DC should keep better track of what happened to the students who were not treated. Finally, DBH needs more clinicians to treat or screen all kids who are referred to the program and to reach more schools.

Continue expanding early intervention services among younger children. The Primary Project provides socio-emotional health services for kids in Pre-K through third grade. It operates in 56 locations including schools and early childhood development centers. Like the school-based mental health program, limited evaluation data is available for the Primary Project, which makes it difficult to determine if children are getting referred to other programs or whether the early intervention is having the desired effect. DCFPI supports expanding this type of service to more environments, but also recommends stronger systems of monitoring and evaluation.

DBH, schools, and other agencies need to coordinate their services and share information. The Department of Health, DC Public Schools, and DC Public Charter Schools have mental health programs that may overlap or be complementary of DBH programs. For example, some children who benefit from DOH’s maternal and child home visiting program may also benefit from the Primary Project. Yet these agencies do not sharing information in a way that could facilitate better hand-offs between programs, reduce unnecessary duplication of services, and improve understanding of a given child and family’s larger needs. The same linkages should also exist between DBH’s school programs, community health providers, and the Medicaid managed care organizations that serve these kids. These agencies should work together to improve information sharing and access to each other’s databases.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute testified today at DBH’s public oversight hearing on these issues. To read the full testimony, click here.

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The Surplus and the Shortfall: An Explainer

February 10th, 2015 | by Wes Rivers

Residents might be confused by two pieces of seemingly contradictory news: 1) The District had a surplus of $200 million last year and 2) The mayor and DC Council need to address a budget shortfall of $240 million for next year. Many are wondering how DC can have shortfalls when carrying a surplus. That is a great question, and the District Dime is here to explain.

A surplus means that the District took in more money than it spent last year. That can happen for two reasons: either DC collects more tax revenue than expected or government agencies spend less than what they were budgeted. The $200 million surplus in 2014 was due to the latter — agencies spent much less than what the Mayor and Council allowed them to.

Since the surplus is a look into the past, it does not say a lot about the future state of the District’s budget or economy. The surplus was in 2014, while the budget shortfall is for 2016, and a lot can change in two years. What’s more, surpluses caused by underspending are not necessarily a sign that DC is in a great financial position. Even in bad economic years, the city will run a surplus if agencies spend less than what they had planned.  

The shortfall for 2016 is based on projections of the District’s future ability to pay for services like health care and schools. Those costs tend to rise from year to year, due to health care inflation, rising school enrollment, pay increases for DC workers, and other factors. City leaders have known since last year that tax collections for 2016 would not be enough to cover our bills. In addition, the Chief Financial Officer recently revealed that revenues from traffic cameras and income taxes are coming in lower than they had previously thought, not because the economy is slowing down but for other reasons, some of which are technical.

These factors combine to create a projected 2016 shortfall of $240 million, which the mayor and council must address when they put together a budget this spring. That could be resolved in a number of ways. 

  • Revenues could start to grow faster than what is expected right now. The next revenue forecast comes out later this month.
  • DC government agencies might underspend again. Some of the low spending in 2014 may carry forward into future years, to the extent that the city needed less money than budgeted to meet some of its needs.
  • The mayor and council could find other savings that don’t require cutting services, or unexpected resources to pay for some its bills. The city could, for example, use some of the $200 million surplus to meet its needs next year.
  • Finally, the mayor and council could cut services, raise revenues, or some combination of the two.

We will know more when the next revenue forecast comes out later this month. That will give Mayor Bowser a clear picture of the size of the financial challenges she faces. And it will frame the steps she must take to put together a budget that is balanced while also meeting important needs of DC residents, such as housing and public safety.

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Getting the Most Out of DC’s Job Training Programs

February 9th, 2015 | by Ed Lazere

The District can help residents get good jobs by doing more to coordinate its many adult education and training programs, and by focusing resources on the thousands of residents who lack a high school degree. Making sure adults are able to get basic education and then easily transition to more advanced training will allow the District to get the most out of its investments in jobs. Improving the employment prospects of DC households is good for the entire city, leading to more stable families and more spending in local communities.  (Click on figure below for better viewing.)

2.9.15 Career PathwaysThere is tremendous potential for changing how the District approaches these services, with a new mayor focused on improving residents’ job chances, a new DC taskforce focused on adult education and training, and recent changes in federal training programs. A new report from a number of non-profit partners, including DCFPI, recommends how DC’s leaders can take advantage of these opportunities.

  • Put more residents on a career path: Many states and cities are creating clearer connections between adult education programs and training programs, so that a high school diploma or GED is just a first step toward additional education and training, not an end. A District taskforce charged with developing this so-called “career pathways” approach will issue its report this year. And recent changes in federal law encourage DC to unify job training plans across agencies.                                                                                                                                 A well-integrated education and training system will ensure residents get the right kind of help and are connected to a job when their training is done. The District offers a variety of adult education and job training services across many agencies, as DCFPI identified a few years ago. Mayor Bowser has stressed the need to better coordinate these efforts, and the recommendations of the Career Pathways taskforce can serve as a guide.
  •  Focus on residents who need the most help: About 60,000 DC adults DC lack a high school diploma, and many have literacy skills too low to take advantage of job training.  Investing more in basic education, in the context of job preparation, will be important.
  •  Support successful programs: The District should do more to measure the outcomes of education and training programs, to ensure that the most effective practices are used, and to offer technical assistance to help education and training providers succeed. 
  •  Allow the Workforce Investment Council to lead: Mayor Bowser should enable the WIC to play a central role in reforming how the city approaches adult education and job training. The WIC oversees federal job training programs and advises the mayor and DC Council on DC’s workforce investment system. It is led by the private sector – including local businesses and organized labor – and also includes government officials. The WIC is convening the Career Pathways taskforce and has responsibility under the new federal law for helping coordinate education and training services.

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This Year, Spend the Surplus to Make DC Stronger

February 6th, 2015 | by Ed Lazere

The District ran a surplus of over $200 million last year, which offers a great opportunity to invest in things that will help DC residents and make the city stronger, such as replacing the DC General shelter or buying more technology for schools. The mayor and council will need to take special action, however, because current law requires every dollar of surplus to be saved in reserves. At a time when the city’s savings are at a record level and resident needs are great, using a portion of the surplus for other needs is a prudent move.2.6.15-FundBalance

Some of the latest surplus cannot be used, such as funds set aside for the new soccer stadium. But the mayor and council could decide to use other portions. For example, $48 million of the surplus is earmarked for a “cashflow” reserve that reduces the District’s need to borrow in the middle of the year in between major tax collections. Yet the benefits of adding to this reserve are modest, because short-term borrowing currently costs the city less than $1 million a year. Rather than adding to this reserve, the funds could be spent to help residents.

DC’s leaders also could examine the city’s multiple special funds, which contributed $50 million to the surplus. Some of these funds may have more resources than needed for their specified purposes.

These steps could free up millions of dollars for a range of one-time investments, such as helping families facing eviction or utility shutoffs, helping moderate-income residents buy their first home, or adding to library collections. 

Some people may express concern about spending surplus funds, but consider this:

  • Even before the latest surplus, the city’s savings (its fund balance) were the highest on record.
  • The city has saved almost $1 billion in surplus funds in the last three year.
  • The District’s fund balance is larger than in most states. Only seven states have larger balances than DC when measured as a share of its budget. 
  • When the District had substantial surpluses in the mid-2000s, then-Mayor Williams used as much as $500 million per year in surplus funds for a variety of purposes. 

 A balanced approach to the year-end surplus makes sense. Setting aside huge amounts of city resources in savings, when savings already are sizable, is a wasted opportunity to make investments that will improve the quality of life in the District.  

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Funding Didn’t Follow At-Risk Students This Year – Let’s Ensure All High-Need Schools See Their Share Next Year

February 5th, 2015 | by Soumya Bhat

Some DC Public Schools with large numbers of low-income students didn’t receive their share of funds for “at risk” students this year, while some schools with lower levels of need saw more than their share, a new data tool shows. While this was the first year for at-risk funding and there wasn’t much time for DCPS to strategically apply these funds within the tight budget timeline, we should make sure next year that schools in need see their fair share of resources intended to help low-income students.

DCFPI and Code for DC teamed up to show how the over $40 million in DCPS’ at-risk funding – which is designed to give extra attention to children struggling in school or at risk of academic failure – matched the number of students eligible for the funding at each DCPS school this year. You can click on a school to see more detailed information on its at-risk student population. It also shows at-risk funding received per student, compared with the amount of funds the school should have gotten through the formula if funding had followed the student, as DC law requires. In addition, you can see what purposes the at-risk funds were used for, according to DCPS.

DC’s school formula was adjusted substantially this year to better reflect what DC students need to succeed. Increases were provided for special education, English language learners, and an entirely new category for low-income or “at risk” students was created. Over 30,000 students in DC Public Schools and public charter schools are considered at-risk. As of the 2014-15 school year, the school funding formula provides $2,079 additional dollars to help meet the needs of these students.

According to DC law, at-risk funding is supposed to follow the child to every DCPS school and school leaders are to have flexibility in how they use these resources. But, due to time constraints in the budgeting process, this was not possible in this first year. The funding went to a number of DCPS initiatives that were already planned, but were not necessarily targeted to improving the performance of at-risk students.

Here are a few highlights:

  •  Wards 1, 7, and 8 saw less at-risk funding than if funding had followed students. For example, Ward 7 schools have 18 percent of the city’s at-risk students, but only got 11 percent of the at-risk funding. (See the figure below.) 2.5.15-At-Risk
  • Most of the at-risk funds went toward middle grades staffing, extending the school day, and grants to schools to promote “student satisfaction,” such as field trips or anti-bullying efforts. These are great ideas for programs, particularly the social and emotional supports like guidance counselors and special education teachers, but as a result of that focus some high-need schools got less than their share of increases. In the case of the student satisfaction grants – 12 percent of the at-risk funds allocated – all DCPS schools received that money, and there was no specific tie to at-risk population.
  •  DC law also requires that schools cannot lose more than 5 percent of their budget from year to year. In the current school year, a small share of the at-risk money was used to meet this requirement. It is unclear if there will be sufficient funding to meet this requirement next year if the formula does not increase but DCPS wants to continue last year’s investments in middle grades while also investing in new priorities.

DCPS has said that investments in high schools are a priority for next year. DCFPI thinks this is long overdue, but is concerned that at-risk funding will once again not be allocated proportionally to high-need schools within the system.

You can check out the tool here:

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