Staff Editorial: Public deserves explanation on Wilson budget cuts

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Wilson High School is located at 3950 Chesapeake St. NW in Tenleytown. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2016)
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When Mayor Muriel Bowser put together her budget proposal this spring, she made the curious choice to limit investment in education — offering a 1.5 percent increase in per-pupil funds over last year, not enough to keep up with inflation and rising expenses. The result of this budget, according to education advocates, would have been widespread staff layoffs and larger class sizes.

We greatly appreciate that the D.C. Council managed to identify another $11.5 million, enough to double that increase to 3 percent. But spending that money remains in the hands of the executive branch — and it’s unclear that the Bowser administration, including new Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson, intends to distribute it the way the council intended.

A particular concern affects Wilson High, the District’s largest public high school and one of its most successful. There, the mayor’s initial budget proposal would have caused as many as nine positions to be eliminated. Carrying that out would run counter to the council’s clearly stated goal in identifying further funding: “restoring instructional staff and programs at schools.”

Antwan Wilson became the D.C. schools chancellor in 2017. (Brian Kapur/The Current/January 2017)
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Even so, instead of using the money to fill in existing gaps, Chancellor Wilson said he intends to make “additional strategic investments” to citywide programs, schools with the “greatest need” and students who are struggling the most. Furthermore, the chancellor told the Wilson High community that based on conversations with the principal, the school is already “positioned well” even without extra funds.

By looking at Wilson High as a Ward 3 school with respectable test scores and graduation rates, it’s easy for an outsider to overlook its high numbers of at-risk students who attend from around the District — a trap we hope the new chancellor avoids. Given Wilson High’s staggering enrollment level, the total number of students who are struggling is comparable to the enrollment at some entire high schools. Furthermore, D.C. Public Schools should be working to strengthen successful programs such as Wilson, not starving them of resources.

Many community members and elected officials are asking why Wilson High is facing a de facto budget cut. With the start of the school year rapidly approaching, Chancellor Wilson has released only generalizations about his plans and vague assurances that the school is adequately funded. Even if the mayor and chancellor insist that the school suffer staffing reductions, they must provide a clearer answer as to where the council’s allocation is going instead, and why.

Wilson High not only educates around 1,800 young people every year, but citywide trust in the program also encourages numerous families to move to and remain in the District. Even uncertainty about the school is enough to lose some families. We urge the administration to limit the damage. Officials must provide answers and adequate funding for Wilson High.