Budget constraints could force some D.C. Public Schools to cut teachers and other school workers next academic year, frustrating parents and educators who say more staff are needed to help students recover from the pandemic.
The school system overall is expected to spend about $18 million more for the 2021-2022 academic year than it did for the current school year, according to a preliminary analysis of school spending plans by Mary Levy, a watchdog who has studied D.C. schools budgets for 40 years.
But that increase is not enough to keep pace with higher staffing costs, forcing many schools to potentially cut positions, education advocates say. The school system is also projecting slightly lower student enrollment next year, which plays a large role in determining how much money a school receives.
D.C. Public Schools could lose more than 90 teacher positions, including 57 teachers who instruct English Language Learners, according to the analysis. Nearly 60 of the school system’s 117 campuses could lose some staff.
At the same time, the number of mental health professionals in the school system is expected to stay flat, according to Levy, despite worries about rising mental health challenges among youth. Students in the District have long argued for more mental health workers in schools.
“If it wasn’t enough before, it really isn’t enough now,” Levy said.
D.C. Public Schools officials said they are reviewing Levy’s analysis and emphasized that budgets are far from finalized.
In a letter to the community, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said the school system plans to invest nearly $80 million in federal stimulus money to help schools recover from the pandemic, including $33 million on academic and socio-emotional support for students.
“These investments are just the beginning of our collective commitment to build back stronger,” Ferebee said.
Critics still worry the federal help will not be enough because the city is not allowing schools to use stimulus money to pay for staff positions.
Staffing concerns are a perennial issue during the city’s annual budget process. But parents and members of the D.C. Council say the proposed cuts are especially alarming this year when students have suffered academically and emotionally during the pandemic.
Hundreds of people have signed a petition urging city leaders to maintain current staffing levels and invest more money for mental health and academic support at schools in under-resourced neighborhoods, which have disproportionately borne the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic.
The District is early in its budget process. Mayor Muriel Bowser is expected to release her full budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year in late April, and it will then be reviewed by the D.C. Council, which has the authority to direct more money to schools.
Before the full budget is released, each traditional public school receives an individual budget detailing the amount of money the campus is expected to receive for the next fiscal year.
The proposed spending plans are reviewed by each school’s principal and Local School Advisory Team, or LSAT, a group of parents, teachers and other workers that advises administrators on issues that affect the school community.
During that review process, several schools learned they were facing steep cuts. Some campuses successfully petitioned for more money from the city but gaps remain.
In Ward 4, a part of the city that includes Petworth, Brightwood and Fort Totten, schools could lose more than 20 educators who teach English Language Learners, said D.C. Councilmember Janeese Lewis George, who represents the area.
Enrollment for English Language Learners dropped by hundreds of students between the 2020-2021 academic year and 2019-2020, school system data show. Those numbers are used to create enrollment projections and make staffing decisions for next school year.
But Lewis George is not convinced the projections are accurate. She said some immigrant families who did not enroll their children in school because of hardships during the pandemic may return. Many English learners in the community she represents speak Spanish or Amharic and have struggled with distance learning, she added. Cutting workers could put them at a further disadvantage.
“In order for them to actually recover and rebuild, they need that essential staff,” Lewis George said, urging the school system to provide enough money for schools to maintain current staffing levels.
School system officials acknowledged schools might experience a surge in English Language Learners next school year and will use money it sets aside each year in an “enrollment reserve” to address staffing challenges created by enrollment increases.
Eboni-Rose Thompson, a State Board of Education representative for Ward 7 who also belongs to the Local School Advisory Team at H.D. Woodson High School, said Woodson could potentially lose one staff member because it is slated to receive fewer dollars in its next budget.
The school was initially told it would lose about $900,000 next year. Thompson said the high school filed a petition with the school system for more money, which was approved. But that did not close the gap entirely.
“In a year where we’re saying we know students need more, to lose anything hurts,” she said. “If students need more, we need to figure out how to give them what they need.”
At Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in Navy Yard, a math interventionist and reading specialist could have their positions reduced to part-time, said parents Allison Harvey and Mike Goodman. The school could also lose one part-time physical education teacher and one part-time science teacher.
Harvey, a former co-president of the school’s PTA, said parents are pleading with school system leaders to keep the positions, flooding the email inboxes of city leaders. More than 60% of Amidon-Bowen students are considered at-risk, which means they belong to low-income families, are homeless or are in the foster care system.
“Now is absolutely the wrong time to cut teachers and staff, particularly at schools in under-resourced communities,” said Goodman, who is married to Harvey.
Charles Allen, who represents Ward 6 on the D.C. Council, said schools face similar cuts every year, forcing community members to lobby elected officials for more money. The process is exhausting, he added, even more so during a pandemic that has upended so much.
“It’s time-consuming and draining for them to have to fight so hard to hold on to what they already have,” Allen said. “Students need these supports if we are going to address the trauma and learning loss that a lot of these students have experienced.”
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