by Tori Powell
At a Ward 3 education meeting with City Council Chair Phil Mendelson on March 11th, a concerned public brought forth a variety of issues to the Council Chair who has said he believes that DC children should be “put first.” On many of the problems addressed, Mendelson said, “I’d be pretty remarkable if I had a solution…if I had a solution, we could all go home.”
One questioner pointed out that, as Mayor Bowser has proposed more affordable housing in Ward 3, this may contribute even more to severely overcrowded schools. “We have a critical affordable housing crisis…we don’t want concentrated poverty,” Mendelson said, defending Bowser’s reasoning, adding that he believes it is illegitimate to prioritize overcrowding over other relevant problems.
He acknowledged the problem of overcrowding, but repeatedly insisted that there is no quick solution, despite the urgency that Ward 3 school parents demand. The answer, he said, is “not as simple as kicking children out” of one school. He said he hopes to build a stronger feeder pattern for students in kindergarten through 12th grade to create an equitable school system throughout the District.
A few speakers said that overcrowding has forced some Ward 3 schools to sacrifice their arts programs as the space was needed for other classrooms, and that some classes are being taught out of “carts.”
One audience member suggested that the public school system follow the leasing system lead of the charter schools to alleviate overcrowding. Other members of the public questioned the transparency of school budgets. Parents said that they have a right to see how the dollars are budgeted. “There’s got to be more transparency,” Mendelson said, calling on stakeholders to also assist in providing support.
For practical purposes, many schools are suffering from budget cuts if their budgets are not increased to offset salary increases. Several said that there should be a push towards budgets for individual schools to which Mendelson seemed to agree. He repeatedly stated that if school budgets are cut, schools that are doing well should not be punished, but money should be found elsewhere to solve the problem for schools that are not doing well. Ruth Wattenburg, Ward 3 member of the school board said, “there a lot of schools with problems with their budgets,” adding that “the central administration has been getting fat.” She pointed out that Wilson’s enrollment continues to increase whereas funding is decreasing.
Mendelson mentioned that his philosophy for the next four years in education focuses on budgeting, parental involvement, student attendance, literacy, and more autonomy within schools as a whole. He praised the Chancellor of D.C. public schools, Lewis Ferebee. “He [Ferebee] will push for more autonomy at the school level…we should encourage autonomy.”
As for the future, Mendelson said he remains optimistic, although he is aware that his plans might possibly be ineffective.
CORRECTION: This article has been amended. Ruth Wattenberg is the Ward 3 member of DC’s State Board of Education, not Mary Levy, as was previously published.