Testimony at the Performance Oversight Hearing of the DC Education Agencies on School Budgeting and Transparency

Chairperson Mendelson and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify. My name is Qubilah Huddleston, and I am a Policy Analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI). DCFPI is a nonprofit organization that promotes policy and budget choices to reduce economic and racial inequality in the District of Columbia through independent research and thoughtful policy recommendations.

My testimony focuses on the need for DC Public Schools (DCPS) to improve its individual school budgeting process and overall budget transparency. DCFPI recommends that DCPS:

  • Engage principals and Local School Advisory Teams (LSAT) around school budgets earlier in the school year.
  • Give schools more than 10 business days to revise their budgets.
  • Publish consistently formatted budget documents and make school budget documents in Excel format publicly available.

We also recommend that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE):

  • Incorporate a public dashboard of COVID-19 federal relief allocations and expenditures into the DC School Report card. This dashboard should be regularly updated, detailed, and easy to interpret.

The DCPS Budget Process is Disjointed

DCFPI strongly urges DCPS to engage principals and LSATs earlier in the school year. We also want DCPS to give schools more than 10 business days to revise their budgets.

Last December, we were pleased to see the Council urge DCPS to both release mock versions of school budgets underneath DCPS’ new budget model and to release school budgets earlier than the status quo timeline. DCFPI and our allies have routinely asked DCPS to give principals and LSATs more time to review and submit their school budgets.

Currently, DCPS does not engage schools in budget conversations until early winter, months after the Mayor requires DCPS and other government agencies to determine their programmatic needs for the upcoming fiscal year. In addition, DCPS has typically only given schools 10 business days to turn around revisions to their initial budgets. These timelines are problematic for a few reasons:

  • DCPS, along with other government agencies, typically develop their budget requests for the following fiscal year between September through December. The Mayor sets a budget target for each agency, often set below the current budget to encourage agencies to look for savings. Not only does this mean that DCPS sets a budget uninformed by what schools need, but it also means that principals and LSATs are unable to hope for an initial budget that allows them to innovate or grow programs that could help reduce racial and income gaps in student learning;
  • In recent years, DCPS has routinely made important decisions behind closed doors that only become apparent to the public once DCPS releases initial school budgets. For example, in fiscal year (FY) 2020, DCPS added school security costs to school budgets, causing educators, students, and families to be confused and panic about whether they could afford to at least maintain the staffing and programs they already had in FY 2019. In the FY 2023 initial budgets, DCPS has moved school security costs back to the central office budget, a decision that DCPS has not explained publicly;
  • DCPS often waits until the last minute to notify principals and LSATs that budgets will be published soon, which means that they have to scramble to schedule meetings, risking less than full participation in the decision-making process;
  • Familiarity and experience with the DCPS budgeting process vary at each school. This means that some principals and LSATs can work quickly within the 10-day window, know who to consult with and ask for support, understand potential nuances within their initial budgets, and even advocate for more money while other principals and LSATs who are newer or less experienced may struggle to work in a similar manner. This contributes to the current inequities we see when the Chancellor and his budget team cater to the squeakiest wheels, which are often schools serving more white students and students who have families with higher incomes.

DCPS Publishes School Budget Documents That Are Inconsistently Formatted

DCFPI urges DCPS to publish consistently formatted budget documents and make school budget documents in Excel format publicly available.

DCPS regularly shares budget documents that obscure critical information. For example, DCPS has shared budget documents that failed to include “at-risk” student enrollment numbers, percentages, and dollars. This and other omissions have forced the public at times to view this information within the data visualizations on DCPS’ budget website, requiring more effort and time to make sense of at-risk spending. Other inconsistencies from DCPS include publishing:

  • Different formats of budget documents from year to year;
  • Different information in initial budget documents and submitted budget documents; and,
  • Different numbers between the pdf versions of school budgets and the visualizations on the website.

With these inconsistencies and schools having to submit their budgets within a short timeframe, DCPS has made school budgets opaque and it is challenging for the public to adequately follow increases or decreases in investments, enrollment, and other year-over-year changes.

In addition, DCPS’s failure to publish school budgets in Excel format, despite the Committee of the Whole, our organization, and other advocates asking them to do so and DCPS saying that they would, means that we cannot easily analyze what is happening with school budgets, let alone quickly determine what is further needed as we prepare for the Mayor to release her budget proposal.[1]

If OSSE can publicly share education data in Excel format, DCPS should do it as well. Public charter local education agencies also make Excel versions of their school budgets available to the public.

Local Education Agency COVID-19 Relief Spending Lacks Transparency

DCFPI urges OSSE to incorporate a public dashboard of COVID-19 federal relief allocations and expenditures into the DC School Report card. This dashboard should be regularly updated, detailed, and easy to interpret.

The District has received nearly $610 million in federal relief to address the harm of the pandemic on public school students, educators, and families. Yet the city lacks a singular place for residents to easily access information on how Local Education Agencies (LEAs) are allocating and spending their dollars. The information that does exist is limited, buried in opaque budget documents, or spread across documents and/or websites of different agencies.

Currently, OSSE has a “Recovery Funding” page on its website that includes various hyperlinks that cover information on funding awarded to LEAs and OSSE. DCPS has summary paragraphs about its federal funding on its website, while the Public Charter School Board Transparency Hub does not include information on how public charter LEAs have allocated their funding. The US Department of Education (ED) has a dashboard that DC residents can navigate to learn more about federal education relief dollars. However, it is not super detailed as it does not show allocations and spending at the school level.  As of today, the dashboard shows that DC has only spent 14 percent of its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency federal relief funding from the CARES Act, Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, and the American Rescue Plan packages. DC has only spent 28 percent of its Governor’s Emergency Education Relief dollars, according to the ED dashboard. [2]

Given the historic level of federal funding that the system has received, and the challenges schools are facing in helping students, families, and educators recover and cope with the enduring pandemic, OSSE needs to make it easier for the Council and the public to access this data.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions.

[1] DCPS 1.20.22 Hearing Follow-Up Responses, obtained via email on February 1, 2022.

[2] U.S. Department of Education, Education Stabilization Fund, DC State Profile. Data reflects spending through December 2021.