D.C. Council member David Grosso proposed new rules Wednesday that would govern the council’s decisions about how to fund school renovations in the future, aiming to make more efficient and equitable use of the resources the city spends to improve public school facilities.
Grosso, chairman of the Education Committee, said his proposal emerged from concerns that the school system’s process of spending capital-improvement funds has been haphazard, leaving some schools waiting years for upgrades while others benefit far faster. He said that the changes, if approved, could lead the council to alter the mayor’s capital budget plan, which could result in some schools receiving less planned-improvement money and others receiving needed attention sooner.
There has been an inequity in how the money is spent, he said, with 26 schools not having any improvements in recent years, including many elementary schools east of the Anacostia River.
“The past six to eight years have been a real free-for-all when it comes to capital budgets in the schools,” said Grosso (I-At Large). “I think there can be some objective ways to do this that are fair and can have a better impact on a broader number of schools.”
Under his proposal, decisions about capital spending would be based first on a category called “equity,” taking into account the date and type of the school’s last modernization, the condition of the facility and the amount of investments made in other schools in the same feeder pattern.
The second category would be “student demand,” including actual and projected enrollment figures and how crowded the school is.
He also proposed looking at the school’s community, including overall public financial investment in the neighborhood, as well as the number of school-age children in the boundary and how well the school supports teaching and learning.
Grosso is asking for feedback on the criteria and whether people think they reflect the most important factors that should be considered, and he posted an online survey on his Web site.
Grosso said the rules are a result of work with the D.C. schools chancellor, the deputy mayor for education and the Department of General Services. Chancellor Kaya Henderson asked Grosso to help overhaul the system in February by creating a task force that would create some “logical” criteria rather than “how loudly your community screams.”
Grosso ultimately sped up the process after Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) released the six-year capital budget in April.
The plan caused alarm in many communities. It pushed back about 20 school modernizations, some indefinitely, while adding $30 million to Duke Ellington School of the Arts, increasing its total construction cost to $178 million, the most expensive high school project to date. The plan also showed annual spending decreasing in the next few years.
Grosso said he hopes whatever plan the council approves will be more predictable.
“I am tired of giving people unrealistic or empty promises,” Grosso said.
The council signs off on a six-year plan annually, but that changes dramatically year-to-year and even during the year. The mayor typically asks for a “reprogramming” partway through the year that shuffles projects around further.
Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, said such a process is “long overdue.”
The fund’s ward-by-ward analysis shows that under the proposed capital plan, just 2 percent of modernization funds during the next six years would go to schools in Ward 5, and 4 percent would go to schools in Ward 8, both areas with high concentrations of poverty.
“There has been very little scrutiny over how we fund capital projects,” Filardo said.