Letters to the Editor: May 17, 2017

(Susann Shin/The Current/April 2017)

Mayor’s school funds fall far short of need

The Current’s April 26 article on its interview with Mayor Muriel Bowser quotes her as saying: “I don’t want you to characterize it like the schools are being starved. They get a 1.5 percent increase.” But it is not accurate to say, as the mayor claims, that “this represents a huge increase in the amount of money that is going into schools.”

The proposed 1.5 percent increase in the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula, now belatedly 2 percent, is lower than the expected rate of inflation for the year ahead, currently running at a 2.7 percent annual rate, and well below the 3.5 percent increase recommended by the mayor’s Uniform Per Student Funding Formula Working Group earlier this year. (This formula finances operation costs for D.C. Public Schools and D.C. public charter schools, which educate nearly half of D.C. public school students.)

The government disingenuously claims that its proposed increase is a huge new investment, but in fact it only — inadequately — funds existing students.

Public school finance experts, as well as traditional and chartered public school educators, advocated raising per-student funding in line with rising costs. Falling short of those, the budget proposal also is significantly lower than the 4.3 percent proposed overall increase in the city budget. In a year with a record budget surplus, the future of our city — its children — deserves higher priority.

Half of District public school students are defined as “at-risk.” Nearly three-quarters live in economically disadvantaged homes — almost 80 percent in D.C.’s charters.

The District has vigorously pursued an influx of young families, touting improving schools to entice them to stay beyond the early childhood years. Yet it is this very enrollment increase that is being cited as the reason that public schools cannot be funded adequately — a bitter irony.

All public school educators welcome the influx of students as the result of improved school performance. But what about the students who are here, and who have been here, stranded in an achievement gap defined by race, class, language and disability — the largest in the nation? How will their educational needs be met by a funding level that fails to meet any test of adequacy?

Ramona Edelin, Executive Director, D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools

Don’t be distracted from the real issues

D.C. residents and voters are being insulted and manipulated by local media who are treating alleged favoritism in the school lottery as a “scandal” for which the mayor should be blamed.

Any political favoritism using the school lottery is a sideshow. Indeed, one part of the so-called “scandal” has turned out to be a false accusation against the city administrator. That sideshow is being used to drown out news of much more important corruption contained in the budget that Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson are trying to pass.

The real scandals for which D.C. residents and voters should blame both Bowser and Mendelson are their attempts to give away massive payoffs to heirs of massively wealthy estates and profitable businesses, by cutting their income taxes at a time of catastrophes in affordable housing, chronic homelessness and dire poverty. The District’s four-year financial plan would give away $56 million in tax cuts for heirs of wealthy estates, as well as $152 million in tax cuts for profitable businesses.

It was obvious from the chairman’s attitude toward witnesses who protested the estate tax cuts at a D.C. Council hearing last Friday that he will pick nits and spread disinformation based on outdated data, rather than admit that he is giving away millions of dollars in immoral tax cuts.

Unless a majority of council members show some backbone and vote to repeal those tax cuts this month, D.C. will give away over $208 million in tax cuts to completely undeserving wealthy heirs and profitable businesses over the next four years. Those are the only real scandals that should matter to our local media.

David F. Power, Forest Hills/Van Ness

Protecting an open government in D.C.

When Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3D met with Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh on April 13 at the Palisades Recreation Center, the agenda included such topics as overcrowding in Ward 3 public schools, neighborhood commercial development, Ward Circle, transportation funding and neighborhood crime. All of these issues are of critical importance to residents of ANC 3D (which includes Foxhall, the Palisades, Spring Valley and Wesley Heights) and the city at large.

Unfortunately, no Current reporter or member of the public is in a position to report on what happened at the meeting. That’s because the meeting, held in a public D.C. facility, was closed to the public — contrary to D.C. open meetings laws, including those that specifically apply to ANCs.

The public has a right to know the factors and discussions that shape how public decisions are made and to participate in making them — at all levels of government. This principle is the bedrock of an open and transparent government.

When such meetings are closed — for whatever reason, and at any level — public confidence in the workings of government is undermined. According to a 2012 opinion by the D.C. attorney general, D.C. statutes already are in place requiring that all ANC meetings be open unless the meetings involve legal or personnel matters. Even if no official action is taken at the meeting, ANC meetings must be open to the public, according to D.C. law.

So, the problem is not that laws to protect an open government in D.C. do not exist; the problem is that the laws are not rigidly followed.

ANCs are public bodies, not private organizations or neighborhood groups, and they are funded by city tax dollars. Perhaps the best incentive for ANCs to comply with open meetings laws is for the city government to impose a stiff financial penalty on any ANC that fails to comply.

ANC 3D argues that the April 13 meeting was not an ANC meeting — that Cheh convened the meeting. The ANC further argues that Cheh advised them that the meeting did not have to be open to the public. The ANC said it accepted the council member’s opinion because she is a constitutional law professor — which apparently means she’s immune to being challenged on open meetings requirements of D.C. government. But ANC 3D also justified the closed meeting on the basis that other ANCs in Ward 3 have had similar closed meetings with Cheh — which, if true, suggests a more widespread problem.

As somebody who served as an advisory neighborhood commissioner for 30 years, including as chair of ANC 3D, I know it is not unusual for the mayor or council members to request meetings with an ANC. There is nothing routine, however, about a council member or any other elected public official asking for a private closed-door meeting with an ANC. Even when the city’s open meetings laws were not as comprehensive as they are today (that is, before 2000), I and my ANC colleagues at the time would have found it unacceptable to close the doors of such meetings to the public.

Closed-door meetings do not promote good or honest government. If an ANC can participate in a private meeting because it is convened by another person or entity, then it opens the door to influence-peddling, backroom decisions and political deal-making that are the antithesis of an open and transparent government. Any entity with business before the ANC could organize a private meeting with the full ANC to discuss their project without the benefit of public engagement or scrutiny, according to the rationale offered by ANC 3D.

Instead of embracing transparency, ANC 3D offers a recipe for how to circumvent the open meetings requirements of D.C. government. It is an affront to the principles of open government. Shame on Council member Cheh if she advised the ANC to close its doors to the public.

If the city’s open meetings laws are not adequate to prevent closed-door meetings like the one held on April 13 by ANC 3D with Cheh, or any future ANC closed-door meetings with public officials or a private group, then the council should move vigorously to plug the loophole in existing law. I would hope that Cheh will lead the effort to make that happen.

Ann Heuer, a Palisades resident, was a member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3D from 1981 to 2012.