Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s fiscal year 2022 budget makes significant investments in DC Public Schools, however the need among individual schools appears to be so great that some are opening their doors this upcoming 2021-2022 academic year without a librarian.  

Thanks to federal funding, no school will see a reduction in their FY 2022 budget. The $20 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding that D.C. received as part of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan also means DCPS will have 200 more school-based employees next year, including 25 more mental health professionals and 50 more teachers. In a budget hearing Tuesday afternoon, Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee said schools will receive new employees based on need. 

DCPS is also directing $38 million to school technology, so every student in grades 3 to 12 will have a device. The student-to-device ratio for grades pre-kindergarten through second grade will be three to one. Ferebee said every teacher will have a device, and some will have theirs updated. The investment in technology for FY 2022 is greater than that in 2021, which proposed $6.9 million for computers. 

When the FY 2021 budget fell short of advocates’ calls for at least $17.9 million in school technology, families raised money last summer for tablets so students had a device for remote learning. The most recent proposed budget, however, still makes no mention of a roadmap to universal broadband that would ensure high-speed, reliable internet across all wards, according to Digital Equity in DC Education.

All 118 schools will welcome back students for in-person instruction five days per week. Full-time, in-person instruction was the top request from DCPS families, Ferebee said based on surveying. According to DCPS, all staff, students, and visitors have to wear a mask or face covering, however there will be no cap on students or staff cohort interactions in any grade, meaning middle and high school students can switch classes. “Students should be separated as far as possible,” says the DCPS website, making no reference to the current 3 feet rule. Throughout various hearings, DCPS officials have said the COVID vaccine will not be mandatory for students or staff. 

DCPS intends to respond to learning loss related to the pandemic by investing millions in “high dosage” tutoring. Ferebee explained that tutoring can be “as intensive” as one-to-one or can be small groups of students. “It will vary by student. What we hear consistently is that no one-size-fits-all approach is the right way to think about the recovery process. It should really be a tailored approach, which is something we are prepared for,” Ferebee told lawmakers. 

Every school will offer “high dosage” tutoring, and schools will primarily rely on their staff for these services. Officials will decide what type of tutoring individual students require, if any, based on academic data and parental requests. On average, officials expect 5 percent of students to receive one-on-one tutoring and 10 to 15 percent to receive small group tutoring, Ferebee said. Averages will vary by school. At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman asked Ferebee if $13 million toward “high dosage” tutoring will be enough. “We will know when we get into the school year … That is to be determined,” Ferebee replied.

Top education researchers seem to agree that tutoring programs should be a top investment to address learning loss. “Quality matters. The research on tutoring indicates that it needs to be sustained, regular, and woven into the fabric of the school day, rather than once a week or exclusively after school. Repeated contact of at least three times a week, or 50 hours over four months, should be the baseline,” according to Education Week

While there’s plenty to celebrate in the mayor’s proposed budget, education advocates are concerned about the cuts to school librarians. Indeed, librarians staged a protest at the Wilson Building earlier this month to save their jobs. According to a document of DCPS responses to budget oversight questions, 37 of the 118 schools across DCPS will have zero or one part-time librarian this upcoming academic year—17 (or 46 percent) are in Wards 7 and 8, Black-majority wards that are historically underserved. Of the 37 schools, 26 will have zero librarians. Thirty-one of the 37 schools already had zero full-time librarians this current school year. Five more schools are having to eliminate the positions entirely in the upcoming year.

“It seems to me that this is indicative of the pressure that schools are feeling particularly in those schools with high numbers of at-risk students to provide adequate resources for social-emotional needs and they are sacrificing their librarians,” said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson during the hearing. “This strikes me as very problematic, and probably an equity issue.”

The reason so many schools will not have a librarian is because these positions are not “required staff.” Despite DCPS receiving millions in federal stimulus funding, officials directed schools against using those dollars towards maintaining or hiring permanent, full-time staff due to fear of a “fiscal cliff,” according to the DC Line

During the hearing, Ferebee committed to looking into this issue further. However, the chancellor wouldn’t commit to changing anything immediately. “There are schools that have repurposed the positions and they provided a plan to us on how they will continue to provide library services,” Ferebee told lawmakers. 

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen pointed out that schools are being put in “an impossible spot” where they have no “true choice,” leading them to fire librarians. Ferebee said DCPS is increasing the number of librarians overall and individual schools had multiple opportunities to request additional resources. Those without full-time librarians are opting to exercise flexibility and “repurpose that position,” Ferebee added. “That’s like a really bloodless answer—there is a person there. We are repurposing them. We are firing librarians,” responded Allen. 

Councilmembers were not only upset about librarian cuts, but the overall presentation of the budget. Mendelson thought 18 schools were seeing reductions in their budgets, because that is what the budget book DCPS initially provided said. However, no school experienced cuts because of federal dollars. “Each school has their budget. They know the additional funds that they’ve received,” Ferebee told lawmakers, advising them and others interested in school-based budgets to visit the DCPS website. “So everybody knows what the schools are getting except for the Council,” asked Mendelson. “Chancellor, I’m feeling a little irritated here. The Council, the last I checked, was actually the appropriator and the budget book that we’ve received does not reflect what the schools’ budgets are.” 

—Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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