When Kesabii Dabney moved from Tucson to study law at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), she knew she’d need to find part-time work. Last spring, she labored in the school library and financial aid office and pulled down $560. And when the fall semester came around, Dabney returned to UDC’s federal work-study office to sign up as a teaching assistant in a first-year constitutional law class.

She thought she’d earn a salary of $7 an hour and dutifully turned in her time sheets every 10 days. But the checks never came. “Oh my goodness, when was the last time I got paid?” she wonders. “I got paid in August 1997. I haven’t been paid for fall semester.”

No one has escaped UDC’s long-running fiscal crunch. Last year, the university fired 120 professors to meet budget targets, classes opened late, and the federal government threatened to pull its financial assistance. Now the university is stiffing nearly 60 students like Dabney, who rely on the law school’s federal work-study program to defray tuition and living expenses.

This time, though, UDC officials can’t blame shallow city coffers or those misers on the control board. The federal Department of Education (DOE), after all, has allocated $75,033 for the law school’s 1997-98 work-study salaries, and federal regulations require the university to pay the students every month.

Only in District government does handing out grant money become a management crisis. “We’ve been unable to get paychecks for the students,” complains Law School Dean William Robinson, whose office is shoehorned into the corner of a floor of rented commercial space shared by administrators and academics. “There are a lot of internal difficulties—there obviously is a glitch between the university and the law school.” Robinson and university officials have argued over the snafu since September, when work-study wages for the fall semester came due.

Like many of the spats that have arisen in the past two years, the law school’s work-study predicament pits the city’s powerful appointocracy against longtime bureaucrats. UDC chief financial officer Don Rickford, an emissary of D.C. CFO Anthony Williams, has refused to sign the work-study checks, citing a budget shortfall. “I’m not aware of [the law school] having any funds available,” says the CFO, who along with Williams is credited with restoring fiscal responsibility to the university. “I can’t approve expenditure without having a budget. I will not deficit-spend.”

By rejecting Robinson’s pleas to pay the school’s work-study bills, Rickford has done exactly what Williams appointed him to do. However, Rickford insists he never knew about the $75,033 in DOE funds available for the program. The money apparently got lost somewhere between the university’s accounting system and Rickford’s balance sheets.

But someone in Rickford’s office presumably knew about the federal grant, because Dabney received a W-2 form listing her salary at $2,000, which included the $1,500 she was supposed to have earned last year.

But the feds grow impatient watching their funds lie fallow while city officials bicker about how to disburse them. “The federal regulations say the institution must pay the students once a month,” says Dan Madzelan, DOE’s chief of post-secondary school policy and financial analysis. “In general, when an institution is in violation of financial aid program regulations—if they disperse funds incorrectly—they can be required to pay those funds back to the government.”

That’s not a comforting prospect for law students who are struggling to pay tuition and rent. Both UDC’s undergraduate school (whose work-study members have received their stipends) and its law school are considered “needy” by DOE because a majority of students are eligible for federal financial assistance. Since grants and loans cover tuition, students count on work-study wages to pay their living expenses. “A lot of students are in arrears because they don’t have the money,” says Catrina Jones, vice president of the Student Bar Association. “Students’ lights have been cut off; their phones have been disconnected. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re wondering, ‘Do I get another job to pay for lights, or do I do my homework?’”

Dabney has wrestled with those decisions for seven months. As an out-of-stater, she had to pay $14,000 in tuition her first year and will have to borrow $28,000 for the full three-year legal program. The $1,500 she expected to earn from work-study would have helped offset her $425 monthly rent. But now she frets about her expenses. “Electricity, phone, rent—I don’t know what I’m going to do at the end of the month.”

Dabney is not alone. Second-year law student James Bell has done research in criminal law as his work-study job since he enrolled in UDC. But he holds a second job editing legislation on Capitol Hill. “It’s a hardship, but you have to make do,” he says stoically. “Last Christmas, [the law school] had to give me an emergency loan.”

The law school requires all graduates to perform 750 hours of service in legal clinics representing disadvantaged D.C. residents. Faculty members would prefer that their apprentices spend their free time puzzling over litigation strategies, not mopping floors. “When we have students working…in a law clinic the last thing they need to do is work 10 or 15 hours a week,” says Professor Joe Tulman. “If they can manage clinic, a job, and class, that’s great, and of course they should be paid.”

Law school administrators say they’ve battled to assist their students. They’ve squeezed the institution’s allotments to eke out emergency loans and badgered the university’s financial office for the students’ wages. Robinson recently appealed to the provost. “We’re working our best to resolve this,” says the law school’s administrative dean Stephanie Y. Brown. “And we think we’ll be able to pay the students soon.”

Students’ loss of phone service and electricity has coincided with other crises at the law school. Since 1994, two separate panels from the American Bar Association have refused to recommend accreditation, and the law school has appealed three times. As the District’s finances have improved, so have the law school’s, and finally, in February, the ABA formally accredited it. Shortly after the school won its accreditation, U.S. News and World Report ranked its clinical programs 17th among similar courses offered by 174 law schools across the country.

Still, Jones considers the work-study muddle evidence of neglect by UDC. “There are a lot of people in the city that need our help,” she observes. “I’m very surprised that UDC, knowing our mission, is not doing everything they can to make sure the work-study students get paid. They are sending a message either that the services we provide are not important or we are not important to them.”CP