In DC, Back-to-School Brings a Lesson in Subtraction: Budget Cuts

Less than a month into the school year, DC parents, principals, and teachers received some shocking news; up to $40 million would be cut from the DC Public School budget, mostly from local schools.  The cuts were not a total surprise ‘ the DC Council cut $17 million from DCPS in July and set aside another $3 million that cannot be tapped until later this year.  But DCPS leaders hadn’t given any indication that cuts to schools were imminent, and they haven’t explained why the cuts are so large.

There are still unanswered questions, but we’ve been able to decipher three key factors affecting each school’s budget reduction:

  • Absorbing the $20 million in DC Council Cuts: This cut will be split evenly between central operations and individual schools.  Every school lost $228 per pupil, or about $90,000 for a school of 400 students.
  • Taking Back “Gifts:” A number of schools were re-organized this spring, allowing principals to hire new staff.  This resulted in the hiring of some teachers who ended up without a classroom.  In these cases, the teachers were “gifted” to other schools that had already allocated their budgets.

The problem: DCPS hadn’t budgeted for these staff which created a spending problem.  What was the solution?  Every school that got a “gift” over the summer was told in September to cut their budget by the amount of the gift, either by letting that teacher go or by making other cuts.

  • “Equalization:” Schools that end up with a lower enrollment than projected lost $7,200 for every student they were short.  At the same time, schools that have enrollment above projections receive $7,200 more per extra student.  Since enrollment appears to be close to projected levels, this will affect individual schools but not the overall DCPS budget.

These budget cuts will force schools to cut back on both staff and supplies, making it harder to provide a stable learning environment.

This round of budget cuts should send a message to the DC Council that when they cut DCPS’s budget, children are affected.  But DCPS also deserves some of the blame.  Why weren’t the teachers who were left without a classroom placed in other schools with vacancies rather than being offered as “gifts” that DCPS couldn’t afford?  The fact that some schools got gifts they hadn’t asked for and then had to cut more than other schools also doesn’t seem fair.  The process certainly fuels the suspicions that DCPS is aggressively trying to weed out its current stock of teachers.

As DCPS struggles to improve its performance and compete better with charter schools, cutting massive amounts from schools less than a month into the year isn’t helpful.  Let’s hope it is a problem that can be avoided in the future.