Improved Relations with Federal Bosses Seen as Mixed Blessing for D.C. Schools

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WASHINGTON--Nearly a year after electing a new mayor who promised to use a shovel to clean out the troubled District of Columbia government, the nation's capital is enjoying a honeymoon with its ultimate bosses on Capitol Hill.

But the new willingness among federal lawmakers to help the city--financially and otherwise--under the leadership of Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon has been at best a mixed blessing for the local school system, whose relationship to the Congress is unique in American education.

Even as lawmakers in the past six months approved a record federal payment to the District of Columbia and took other steps to aid the local government, they were handing the Mayor new power to cut the school budget and were casting a sharp eye on the schools' administrative costs.

In fact, the school system received no real increase in funding for the current fiscal year and found itself newly vulnerable to midyear spending cuts.

"Congress has been rolling over backward to help Mayor Dixon," said Delabian Rice-Thurston, the president of Parents United, an advocacy group representing parents with children in the public schools.

"The only problem is that we fear the power they gave her to unilaterally cut the school budget will really work to our disadvantage, and will outweigh anything Congress might do for us," Ms. Rice-Thurston said.

'Fat in Personnel'

While virtually all school districts receive some federal funds, the District of Columbia's is the only one that can be paralyzed, or redirected, at Congressional whim. Some members of the Congress indicated during this year's appropriations hearings that their desire to help the school system was tempered by a belief that the schools are saddled with a top-heavy bureaucracy that would only squander increases in funding.

Lawmakers of both parties lambasted school officials about the slow pace of building repairs funded in the 1991 budget, about the size of the board of education's salaries, and about the system's large proportion of administrators.

''It is fine to come up here and talk about needs for dollars," said Representative Dean A. Gallo of New Jersey, the ranking Republican on the House appropriations subcommittee on the District of Columbia, "but when you have got so much fat in the personnel end, and you haven't done anything to bring any soundness to the budget process, you lose credibility."

In recent interviews, Ms. Rice-Thurston and R. David Hall, the president of the school board, argued that the school system has made great strides in decreasing its administrative payroll.

Lawmakers' complaints about administrative costs are '”just an excuse, but we need to eliminate any excuses they have," Ms. Rice-Thurston said. "We are under their thumb."

"It's a quasi-colonial relationship," Mr. Hall agreed.

The Congress, which under the Constitution has the power to "exercise exclusive legislation" over the seat of government, used to run the local government even more directly. But even when Washington was granted limited home rule in 1973, federal lawmakers retained the authority to veto its laws and approve its budget-although most of its funds are raised through local taxes.

Legislation proposed last week by Representative Ronald V. Dellums, the California Democrat who chairs the House committee that oversees the city's affairs, would reduce that authority.

Currently, the fiscal process begins with wrangling between the mayor and the city council over funding allocations similar to that which occurs in other localities. The city government can set only a total budget for the schools, and has no control over spending within that total.

But the resulting budget must then run a gantlet on Capitol Hill manned by politicians with no inherent loyalty to the city and often with agendas of their own. The District of Columbia's sole delegate to the Congress cannot even vote on the House floor.

During the 1980's, federal lawmakers, restricted by overall pressure on the domestic budget and increasingly disenchanted with the scandal-prone administration of Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., targeted the city's funding. From fiscal 1987 through fiscal 1991, the payment that goes to Washington in lieu of taxes on federal property stagnated at $430.5 million, dropping to 17 percent of the city's total revenues, the lowest percentage since 1965.

'Breath of Spring Air'

But in November of last year, Ms. Dixon, a utility-company executive who had never held public office, was elected mayor on a platform of reform and fiscal responsibility. Members of the Congress promised to help her.

"It's like a fresh breath of spring air from the mountains of West Virginia," Senator Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in debate on a spending bill in March.

That bill gave the local government an emergency infusion of $100 million needed to stem a $316-million shortfall. Mayor Dixon closed the rest of the gap with spending cuts, deferred pay raises, and an increase in cigarette taxes.

The federal bailout averted employee furloughs that would have included school workers.

In August, the Congress enacted a law setting the federal payment at 24 percent of locally generated revenue. The law did not guarantee that level of appropriation, but backers said it would put the city in a substantially better bargaining position.

Late last month, the Congress cleared an appropriations bill that would give the city a record $630.5 million in federal aid in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

New Power for Mayor

But school officials are not lining up to march in the victory parade. The 1992 budget included $519 million for the system's regular budget, $9 million less than was appropriated for 1991 and only $1 million more than was left after a transfer to meet capital-improvement costs.

And another law enacted in August allows the Mayor to cut the school budget if necessary to balance the overall city budget, as long as the city council does not affirmatively disapprove.

School officials pleaded unsuccessfully with a succession of Congressional panels this year, first to disapprove the proposal and later to reverse it. The educators argued that the school board has been more fiscally responsible than other agencies, and that such a change should not be made without the referendum called for under the home-rule charter.

But Ms. Rice-Thurston and Mr. Hall acknowledged in interviews that the city's relationship with the Congress has advantages for the school system as well as a downside. They said the Congress often mitigates the budgetary results of an adversarial relationship between the school board and other city officials.

"There are benefits that outweigh the liabilities," Mr. Hall said. "Congress added $2 million to the school budget the council gave us this year. If there is an Administration or a Congress that wants to support education, this is a way they can do it."

Mr. Hall cited as a particular success a Reagan Administration program through which federal agencies "adopted" local schools.

"The downside is when they want to take $50 million and give it to George Washington University," Mr. Hall said, citing an attempt by Senator Daniel K. Inouye to earmark funds in the 1992 appropriations bill for renovations at the institution in downtown Washington.

The Hawaii Democrat, an alumnus of the university's law school and a former trustee, held up the bill for weeks before dropping the idea.

That is hardly the only instance in which the Congress has made its presence felt. In 1988, for example, lawmakers forced the city to drop a residency requirement for employees of the local government and schools, and exempted religious institutions from a local ordinance forbidding discrimination against homosexuals.

The Congress can also tell the school system how to spend some of its money. For fiscal 1992, for example, federal lawmakers agreed to provide a $3.2-million bonus to the system, but with the money all earmarked for specific projects.

For example, $250,000 was included for "Parents as Teachers," a program designed to encourage parental involvement that was piloted in Missouri. Senator Christopher S. Bond, who represents that state, has sought federal funding to replicate the program for some time. He also happens to be ranking Republican on the District of Columbia appropriations subcommittee.

"We view [such involvement] as a fact of life," Mr. Hall said.

Referring to the longtime hope of many local leaders that the Congress will make the District of Columbia a state, Mr. Hall added: "Neither our relationship with the Congress nor our relationship with the [city] council is going to be addressed until statehood is addressed."

Vol. 11, Issue 08, Page 26

Published in Print: October 23, 1991, as Improved Relations with Federal Bosses Seen as Mixed Blessing for D.C. Schools
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