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Proposed Financial Controls on D.C. Prompt Mixed Concerns

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District of Columbia school officials found cause for both relief and alarm last week as the federal government appeared poised to impose strict new fiscal controls on their city.

President Clinton was expected to sign a bipartisan measure that would bail out the near-bankrupt city government and create a panel to oversee its financial affairs, observers said last week.

The bill, which Congress overwhelmingly approved this month, faults the District of Columbia government for its chronic fiscal mismanagement and says the city has failed to provide effective and efficient services in education and other areas.

At the same time, the bill gives the mayor and city council a substantial power--the line-item veto--in approving the annual budget for the school district, which gets its funding from the city. Superintendent Franklin L. Smith and members of the city's elected school board said last week they hoped that federal intervention would bring financial stability to the city and result in a reprieve from budget cuts.

They were fearful, however, that the Washington city government's veto powers would leave their budget vulnerable to the same political considerations being blamed for the city's financial collapse.

Wilma R. Harvey, the president of the school board, said the proposed line-item veto "really puts us in a vulnerable position" because it gives city officials the power to decide which educational programs are worthwhile.

Jay Silberman, a member of the school board, said last week that the city council "has not demonstrated a significant interest in, or knowledge of, educational needs in the past."

Ignored by Congress?

School board members said they tried, to no avail, to get Congress to address these concerns.

"The door was basically just shut in our face. The discussion was just with the mayor and city council, and there really was no input from 11 duly elected school board members of this city," Ms. Harvey said.

Howard A. Denis, a counsel to the U.S. House subcommittee charged with overseeing the District of Columbia, contended last week that the concerns of the school board and other parties were considered in the drafting of the legislation. "All factors were taken into account," he said.

The bill, however, contains little reference to the school board other than to give city officials line-item authority over the school district's annual budget, which is now about $518 million and accounts for about 15 percent of spending by the city government.

Congress sought not to interfere with the school board's authority but determined that it could not shield the school system's budget from the cuts being asked of other city agencies, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's delegate to Congress, said on the floor of the House when the bill was passed this month.

Nevertheless, she said, Congress "does not intend that there be a raiding of the school system budget" and "is particularly concerned that there be no political influence in the operation of the schools or in matters such as the awarding of contracts."

She urged the financial-review board to vigilantly guard the school board's independence.

Such concerns, however, were not directly expressed in the proposed law. City officials last week said they intend to express budget-related concerns directly to the review board.

'Cut, Cut, Cut'

As of last week, city council members had begun to give a line-item review of the school district's proposed budget for fiscal 1996, which it will eventually incorporate into the council's own. Under the terms of the federal measure, the city government would submit the entire city budget to the financial-review board, to consist of five members, all appointed by the President.

The bill would preserve so-called home rule for the District of Columbia, which has had its own elected local government since 1974 but is subject to Congress under the U.S. Constitution.

The measure, however, would give the review board the power to investigate the local government, order agency reorganization, reject union contracts, and make the kinds of harsh, long-term budget cuts needed to close the deficit, which has been estimated at $300 million to $722 million on a total budget of about $3.25 billion.

Already this year, the 81,000-student district has had to trim its budget by $39 million.

"Everything is cut, cut, cut when it comes to children in our city," Ms. Harvey said.

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