Staff Editorial: This is the wrong time to cut school staff

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(Susann Shin/The Current/April 2017)

When talking about the budget, it’s easy to paint a misleading picture of certain line items. A common tactic is to point to increased spending in some area or other and call it record-breaking, the highest ever — even when the increase simply reflects inflation or some other innocuous factor.

Such is the case with the District’s public education budget. Mayor Muriel Bowser initially proposed a 1.5 percent rise in the city’s per-pupil funding, touting the “largest investment in public education in history.” But critics have rightly flagged that increase as failing to even keep up with inflation. As costs rise faster than spending, the mayor’s spending plan would result in staff cuts at various schools, including Wilson High.

There have certainly been times where budget season was a bleak time for the District. We clearly recall hearings where dozens of people pleaded for their worthy programs to be funded, only to be told by weary D.C. Council members that there was simply no money to be had. This year, though, the District’s revenues are strong and its reserves are ample. The city’s finances are in such good shape that a host of tax cuts are scheduled to automatically take effect. All things considered, it seems like a curious time to lay off high school counselors and other educators.

That’s not to say that we’d reject a well-reasoned argument in favor of more cautious education spending. But Mayor Bowser’s statements that schools would receive record funding — while technically accurate — strike us as disingenuous, not an invitation to serious debate about cutbacks.

The mayor has already amended her budget proposal to include a 2 percent increase next year instead of the original 1.5 percent. But that’s still shy of the 2.2 percent annual inflation rate, and far short of the 3.5 percent requested by various education stakeholders.

We look forward to the outcome of the D.C. Council’s budget review, including the proposed education funding. Committee markups so far have cobbled together an increase of 2.38 percent in the per-pupil formula. To accomplish the rest, we’re open to delaying some of the planned tax cuts if the council establishes that our finances aren’t so strong yet that we can reduce taxes without also laying off school employees.