Jonetta Rose Barras: Government subterfuge in D.C.

By |
Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

"Opaque." That word was used consistently by many D.C. Council committees to describe Mayor Vincent C. Gray's 2014 budget. Legislators may have made their way through the voluminous document, but they screamed for more transparency.

An obscure plan makes it difficult for the council to effectively challenge budget assumptions used by the mayor and Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi. It also prevents District taxpayers from fully understanding how their $7 billion is being used to finance the local budget.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who also oversees the Committee of the Whole, found that sometimes "performance objectives and measures from year to year are inconsistent, minimizing their utility as an accountability tool." Four of the five fiscal year 2013 measures for the Office of Contracting and Procurement are different from the previous year and the 2014 proposal.

"If the council and the public cannot see whether agencies are meeting their stated goals ... no one can be sure whether the dollars we are budgeting are being spent in an efficient and effective manner in which results are being achieved," Mendelson argued in his draft committee report.

The Committee on Education and Libraries, headed by at-large Councilman David Catania, found that DCPS presented multiple budget formats allegedly based on the agency's organizational chart. In the one to the legislature, there were nine areas of focus. But DCPS' internal budget format is based on six categories, including executive offices, chief of staff, office of the superintendent, chief academic officer, chief operating officer and schools.

"The existence of these two parallel budget formats severely limits transparency with respect to the agency's budget," Catania said in the report. Key communities are unable to clearly assess how the agency is spending its money by "looking simply at the budget as presented by the mayor." The result often is "confusion and misperception."

Obscuring agencies' organizational structures, performance goals and spending may be deliberate.

DCPS' budget certainly camouflages central office excesses and redundancies. Consider that there is an Office of Chief of Schools, Office of Academic Programming and Support, and Office of Teaching and Learning, according to council documents.

Wondering how those are different from the Office of the Chief Academic Officer? Chancellor Kaya Henderson did not respond to my request to provide the distinction.

DCPS' website states the Office of Teaching and Learning "establishes what rigorous content students learn and improves how they learn it." Academic Programming and Support helps "schools so that all students can access content and high-quality programs."

That kind of personnel and financial attention on academics should at least translate into the majority of DCPS students scoring proficient on standardized tests, right?

Education reformers have been quick to demand teacher evaluations. I support ensuring qualified instructors are in the classroom, but what about administrators? Shouldn't their value and effectiveness be scrutinized?

Oh, I forgot to mention there's an Office of School Turnaround. It supposedly is focused on helping "struggling schools that are failing students."

Don't get me started.

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

View article comments Leave a comment