D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson
D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The D.C. Council has a few options when it comes to addressing millions of dollars in misspent public school funds intended to support the District’s neediest students.

In a letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, co-chairs of the education committee, D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson suggests that the Council should consider specifically spelling out in the budget how “at-risk” funds are to be spent.

“The Council has the ability to budget in such a way that they circumscribe the funds,” Patterson says. “I’m not sure why the Council has not done that because they seem very well aware of how the at-risk funding has been spent.”

She draws a comparison to the recently approved budget law, which requires that $10,600 “shall be available for the Chancellor for official reception and representation expenses.”

Another option, Patterson says, is litigation—effectively suing the mayor’s office to ensure the funds are spent according to the law.

“I wouldn’t bet the store on litigation,” she says. “But I wouldn’t rule it out either.”

Patterson’s letter follows a Council hearing last week during which Mendelson asked the auditor’s director of education research,Erin Roth, for a solution to the issues identified in their recent report “D.C. Schools Shortchange At-Risk Students.”

The auditor’s report found that D.C. Public Schools underfunded schools with projected high levels of at-risk students. Those individuals may be homeless, more than a grade level behind academically, or receive some sort of welfare. DCPS then illegally used funds specifically intended to support at-risk students to fill in the gap, according to the auditor’s report.

By law, at-risk funds are to supplement, not supplant funding.

Patterson explains in her letter that there are no penalties written into D.C. law for misspending local supplemental funds as there are for funds that come from the federal government.

“You have agencies in the District government who do care what happens with federal dollars because we’re at greater risk of losing them than local dollars,” Patterson says. “It’s not that hard to know when you’re supplementing versus supplanting, but they do it, I guess, with the assumption that nothing is going to matter.”

During last week’s hearing, the education committee also heard testimony on two bills aimed at increasing transparency in DCPS’ budget. Both bills would create a budget line item for at-risk funds and one requires DCPS to submit an annual report on how those funds were spent.

Patterson, who represented Ward 3 on the Council from 1994 to 2006 and chaired the education committee during her final two years in office, expressed her disappointment to LL about questions that went unanswered in the eight-hour meeting.

The auditor’s report lays out specific examples of at-risk funding supplanting base funding. For example, 94 percent of students projected to enroll at Anacostia High School in the 2017-2018 school year were considered at-risk. DCPS’ enrollment formula said the school needed eight social workers and more than three psychologists, but it only received funding for 4 social workers and two psychologists, according to the auditor’s report. And more than two of those psychologists were paid for with at-risk funds.

Eight percent of students at Ward 3’s Alice Deal Middle School, by contrast, were projected to be at-risk during the same school year, and the school required two social workers and one-and-a-half psychologists. The school received funding for three social workers and two psychologists and did not use at-risk funds.

“It was bizarre in that there was so much data in our report on at-risk funding that they could have used to get answers from DCPS,” Patterson writes in an email. “Our reports can be a basis for Council oversight, and I’m just sorry those questions were not asked.”

Grosso did not respond to an email seeking comment before the July 4 holiday.

This post has been updated to correct the length of Patterson’s D.C. Council tenure. She served through 2006, not 2002.