Mary Levy
Mary Levy Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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For residents worried about the District’s public schools receiving the right amount of funding to support more than 48,000 students, something just doesn’t add up.

Year after year, parents, teachers, and advocates ask city officials for greater investments in services that directly benefit students, like technology upgrades and school staff positions. But as many of these community members have noted during recent public meetings, they are forced to grapple with staffing cuts and hard financial choices even though the overall budget for DC Public Schools continues to grow.

The residents say they are frustrated by a lack of transparency around budgeting from the DCPS central office, which oversees the school system and manages the money. They are mystified when the system’s leaders tell them verbally and in budget documents that their schools will receive more funding than in the past, but then must cut positions later.

“We’re having to fight just to maintain the staff and things that we have in our budget right now,” said Grace Hu, a former teacher whose daughter attends Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in Southwest, during a March hearing of the D.C. Council’s education committee. “We need more boots on the ground. … We are dealing with an adult-to-student ratio of one to 25 in some classes.”

At the same hearing, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who sits on the committee, said he had heard about fiscal shortfalls throughout his ward. “If we’re putting this money and resources into our schools and yet many schools are telling me that they are having to eliminate positions, social workers, STEM teachers, the folks that we need … then we’re not funding this the right way.”

This year’s discussions are happening against the backdrop of a school system disrupted by a string of scandals, including inflated graduation and attendance rates, the forced resignations of DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson and Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles, and residency fraud. Now, residents are examining the failures of mayoral control and school reform.

The central office is also coming under scrutiny through the current budget process for the fiscal year that starts in October. In Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2019, DCPS would receive about $993 million and 8,850 full-time positions, 6 percent increases over the system’s fiscal year 2018 budget. The Council could still make changes.

Its education committee, chaired by At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, is set to hear testimony from DCPS about Bowser’s plan on April 19. Over the next month and a half, councilmembers will mark-up all $14.5 billion of the budget before approving a final version. Grosso has urged DCPS to provide “honest answers” about administrative investments.

“It’s like we have this weird formula at DCPS right now,” Grosso said during the March hearing. “It’s a combination of deception, arrogance, and incompetence. And that’s a really bad formula.”

He sent a list of 25 detailed questions to Interim DCPS Chancellor Amanda Alexander in advance of the April 19 hearing, including ones about central office funding. In its response, the school system says it plans to serve 50,243 students next fiscal year. 83.7 percent of all its funds would be spent “directly in schools,” while 12.7 percent would go toward school support, and 3.6 percent toward central administration.

In terms of employees, DCPS says only 1 percent of its entire staff, or 134 full-time equivalents, are focused on “central administration” in the current fiscal year. That is an uptick from 126 in fiscal year 2017, yet down from 161 and 173 in fiscal years 2015 and 2016. “Employees on school budgets,” like teachers, educational aides, and custodians, make up 87 percent of all DCPS staff, or 8,210 full-timers.

But between these two categories, things get a little squishy. This is where critics of the school system’s accounting practices, like veteran education analyst Mary Levy, say DCPS obscures how many central office employees it actually has. A lawyer and parent of DCPS alumni, Levy has been “counting bureaucrats,” as she calls it, since 1980 and formerly consulted for D.C.’s state education office.

DCPS says it has 791 full-time employees who “support school operations, such as staff who work on college and career readiness, curriculum and instruction, and student placement.” By independently reviewing DCPS’ budget over time, though, Levy has found that administrators categorize staff in ways that make it difficult to tell whether staff directly serve students.

“Anytime you’re talking about central office, it’s very important to establish definitions, because everybody has a different idea of what that means,” she explains. “[DCPS] only counts top-level administrators, the very highly paid people and the business services like procurement. That’s not what most people are thinking about when they want to know how large the central office is.”

In its budget proposal for fiscal year 2019, DCPS defines “central offices” as those that “provide fund management, oversight, and centralized administration for the school district.” It defines “school support” as “consist[ing] of programs, services, and staff providing support to schools.” Bafflingly, expenses with the same labels are funded under different designations on budget tables.

For Levy, inspecting DCPS’ books and filing public-records requests for employee lists has become a ritual. She says the process used to take her a long time before improvements in data software, but now she can do it much more quickly. When tallying the number of DCPS employees who provide direct services to students, she filters out certain ones who provide “instructional support,” like professional development for staff.

Levy includes employees who are funded out of central office accounts but spend a lot of time with students, like speech therapists and athletic trainers, in those tallies. As compared with DCPS’ numbers, her findings are striking. In her analysis, there are 831 full-timers who work in DCPS’ central office, including 45 “chiefs and deputy chiefs,” 103 “directors,” and 113 “managers.”

While Levy acknowledges that these types of positions are necessary, she describes their scale as “enormous” and expensive. “It’s not just that it could be going toward some needs that are not being met now, it could be going toward just keeping things where they are,” she says of the funding that props up DCPS’ administration. 

Her research has also found that the number of central office employees has grown significantly since fiscal year 1981, when there were 516. That year, DCPS enrollment was 95,000, about twice what it is now. In fiscal year 2007, around the time the mayor’s office took over the public education system from D.C.’s school board, 626 staffers worked in the central office, by Levy’s count.

In DCPS’ telling, the headquarters is smaller than it was a few years ago and Mayor Bowser has prioritized direct school investments. “DCPS has consistently worked to drive as much funding as possible to the school level,” the system states in the responses it provided to the Council’s education committee. 

Nationally, DCPS appears to be an outlier for its outsized spending on administration. By pulling data from the U.S. Department of Education and the Census Bureau, Levy saw that in 2015 (the most recent year for which complete statistics have been published) DCPS spent 11 percent of its total expenditures on “general administration,” or $2,170 per student, based on an enrollment of 46,155.

“I was astounded,” she says. “They were spending 10 times—10 times!—the national average” of $218 per student. This was in stark contrast both to surrounding school districts like Fairfax and Montgomery counties, and similarly sized school districts like Oakland, California, and Tucson, Arizona. Most of DCPS’ peer districts reported spending less than 1 percent of their total expenditures on administrative costs.

Levy says it is possible that other jurisdictions low-balled their expenses, “but misclassifying is unfortunately more typical of DCPS than other districts.” She and other engaged residents point out that DCPS has restructured its central office in recent years, which has led people attempting to study its budget to speak in metaphors: “whack-a-mole,” “cat-and-mouse,” “shell game.”

“They’re hiding the ball,” said Abigail Paulsen, a parent of three DCPS students and president of the parent-teacher organization at Hardy Middle School in Georgetown, during the Council’s hearing in March. “Where is it? … It’s not clear where these other offices that have been zeroed out [in DCPS’ budget] have gone.” She said this wasn’t “transparent.”

Frustrations with public school funding stretch across the District. Markus Batchelor, the Ward 8 representative on the State Board of Education, says communities have less power in school budgeting discussions than before the mayor’s office took control. “The folks making the decisions are in one building,” he notes. “We have to decentralize DCPS, but that’s also a cultural shift.”

Scott Goldstein, a teacher at Ward 4’s Roosevelt High School who is on paternity leave and founded EmpowerEd DC—an organization focused on building teacher leadership—echoes the need for a “culture shift” so DCPS is more “transparent and inclusive.” He was a member of Roosevelt’s Local School Advisory Team, a group of community members that advise the principals of their schools, and says helping with the school budget was messy.

“Two days before the LSATs were supposed to finalize [individual school budgets], we got two different budgets from [the] central office and nobody could tell us which was the right one,” he recalls. “The principal could not tell us. We had 48 hours to do that and weren’t even sure what document to weigh in on.”