Concerns linger about Wilson High School budget

Wilson High School is located at 3950 Chesapeake St. NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2016)

Frustrated by what they saw as an underfunded education budget, D.C. Council members cobbled together $11.5 million to add funding for city public schools.

But advocates are worried that Wilson High School won’t see any of that money, despite three years of funding cuts and more than 30 layoffs.

For the upcoming fiscal year, Wilson — the largest high school in the District — saw $340,000 in cuts, advocates say, adding that they’d consider the sum to be closer to $1.3 million when the salaries of laid-off employees are accounted for. About nine Wilson teaching and administrative positions have been eliminated even as the school’s enrollment of about 1,800 students has fluctuated by a few dozen at most.

While Wilson’s academic reputation is relatively strong — 88 percent of its students graduated in 2016 — it is classified as a “focus” school under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Focus schools require “targeted support to address large subgroup achievement gaps relative to all schools in D.C.,” according to the law.

Wilson also boasts a diverse student body — its students hail from all eight wards in D.C and only 27 percent identify as white. About 27 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced-priced lunch.

Wilson Local School Advisory Team chair Bethany Nickerson testified before the council May 12, listing the consequences of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s education budget for Wilson. According to Nickerson, an art teacher and a guidance counselor would lose their jobs, class sizes would inflate to 35 and some students would not be able to take a full course load, “missing out on a bulk of a day’s school instruction,” she said.

In an interview with The Current, Mayor Muriel Bowser defended several contentious positions on education, including the school funding formula. (Susann Shin/The Current/April 2017)

Bowser touted her initial education budget for this year — an increase of 1.5 percent from last year — as the “biggest investment in public education in the city’s history.” But education advocates were quick to shoot down this assertion, arguing that when inflation was considered, the budget was effectively reduced.

In January, a task force assembled by the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education advised Bowser to increase per-pupil funding by 3.5 percent. In May, following a torrent of criticism, Bowser adjusted the budget and increased school spending by 2 percent. The council approved further funds.

Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh said in an interview that she feels her ward’s schools have been repeatedly snubbed by the Bowser administration. She expressed frustration that the city hasn’t yet disseminated the council’s extra allocation, or even indicated how it would be used.

Last month, Cheh wrote to Antwan Wilson, new D.C. Public Schools chancellor, asking how the additional $11.5 million would be used and specifically whether Wilson’s budget would be restored. The chancellor replied in a July 19 letter that he would specify where the funding would go by September.

Former mayor and current Ward 7 Council member Vincent Gray is similarly dismayed by Bowser’s cuts to education when the city is in a strong financial position.

“There is no reason for it; we’re doing well,” Gray said in an interview. “I keep telling the mayor: This is an inadequate budget.”

Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh speaks at her 2015 inauguration. (Brian Kapur/Billig Forbrukslån The Current/January 2015)

Clearly frustrated, Cheh shared a thought with The Current: Could Wilson convert to a charter school?

“I don’t have a full-blown plan. I just wanted to throw that out there as an idea,” Cheh said. “Maybe it’s time.”

District charter schools are funded strictly according to how many students they enroll. This is not the case for public schools, whose funding formula can be far more complex. If Wilson were to become a charter school, Cheh said, its funding would be assured.

Ruth Wattenberg, Ward 3’s member of the D.C. State Board of Education, said that Cheh’s suggestion is simply proof of the “terrible position that [Bowser] is putting us in.”

In Wattenberg’s view, the public education funding equation is opaque, ever-changing — and in need of an immediate overhaul. While she understood why Wilson received less money than schools with more at-risk students, she said that at a minimum the city must establish a fixed rate that accounts for per-pupil needs.

“You have to figure out what is the minimum that is appropriate,” Wattenberg said. “You can’t say, ‘We’re going to take all the resources.’”

Cheh has no plans to back down. Next on the list is her annual “School Readiness Tour.” Starting Thursday, she will visit every Ward 3 school over the next week to discuss overcrowding and budget concerns with school leaders.

“It’s wrongheaded, the way Ward 3 schools are treated,” Cheh said. “The fact that [Wilson] does well should not be the occasion for the education establishment to ignore it.”

A spokesperson for D.C. Public Schools did not respond to several questions about the budget for Wilson High, but released a statement on the chancellor’s plans. “DC Public Schools is working to ensure that every school, including Wilson High School, has the resources they need to effectively operate and provide an excellent and equitable learning experience for every student,” she wrote.