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DC's affordable housing fund isn't doing enough for low-income residents, an audit says

The District's Housing Production Trust Fund is a program run by the city to fund and build affordable housing, which helps some of DC's poorest families live in one of the country's most expensive housing markets. A recent audit, however, says that too little money is going to the lowest-income residents.

Photo by Kamesg on Flickr.

Every year, the District Department of Housing and Community Development puts all of the trust fund's money into a big pot, along with other federal and local funds earmarked for affordable housing. Then it puts out requests for proposals (RFP) to build housing using the money that detail exactly how it must be spent. Non-profit and for-profit groups alike apply for and get money from the fund.

According to DCHD, almost a billion dollars has gone into the fund since 2001, leading to the construction or renovation of almost 10,000 units dedicated to housing families whose incomes can be far below average.

The city's Office of the District of Columbia Auditor recently took a look at how HPTF money has been used since it was created, and how DCHD has accounted for that spending. The report says that while a lot of money has been spent to build or renovate housing units, far less money than what is required has gone toward housing for people who can afford the least.

Far more money was supposed to go toward housing for people who earn the least

By law, at least 80% of the fund has to be spent on helping finance construction for housing that's for households earning less than half of the Area Median Income (AMI). AMI is a tool used nationwide to decide how much a family needs to make to meet requirements for subsidized housing in a given area. The AMI for a family of four in Washington in 2016 is $108,200 a year.

Within that 80% requirement, half of money spent has to go towards housing for households making less than 30% AMI (i.e. a family in Washington that only makes 30% of $108,200 in a year, or around $32,000 for a family of four) while the other half focuses on households between 31 and 50% AMI.

But in 2014 and 2015, the fund simply hasn't spent all that much on that subcategory of housing. In 2014, only 32% of the fund actually went to housing households earning 50% AMI. 2015 was a bit better at 49%, but still far below the 80% requirement.

Table from the DC Auditor.

DHCD is working to fix the problem

According the audit, DCHD has a lot of work to do to catch up and meet its goals. The report recommends that DCHD and the advisory board make up for lost time by focusing only on housing families that earn less than 50% AMI for the foreseeable future.

"DHCD should consider compensating for the loss of investment in units for households earning 0-50 percent AMI during FY 2014 and FY 2015 by focusing all available funds on those two income categories for the near future," write the auditors.

In a section of the reports for comments from DCHD, the agency says that it has already started on a plan to get things back on track, and to ensure that the right amount of money goes toward those groups: "Beginning in fiscal year 2015, [DHCD] began issuing targeted requests for proposals utilizing the Housing Production Trust Fund with a requirement that the agency will only fund new construction projects targeting households with incomes of 50% of area median income and below."

To make sure the lowest-income families keep getting the funding they need, DCHD and the Production Fund will have to keep better track of their spending and reporting to the city's oversight agencies. The audit also revealed that several key reports that are due quarterly are simply missing, and that a lot of the fund's activities were classified under a general "other" category. That makes it hard for city auditors to suss out what money goes where.

The Housing Production Trust Fund is an important tool for the city to keep some of its housing affordable for individuals and families struggling with high housing costs in Washington. And after nearly being cut away to nothing in 2012, the fund saw a big infusion of nearly $100 million dollars during last year's budget process.

But all the money in the world doesn't matter if it doesn't get to the people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries. So now its up to the city's workers and elected officials to work together to fulfill the Housing Production Trust Fund's promise.


Here's Greater Greater Washington's budget for 2016

Our goals for 2016 include targets for raising more money, including from our upcoming reader drive, foundations, and corporate sponsors. When we posted the goals recently, some of you asked to hear more about our budget and why it's getting bigger.

Budget image from Shutterstock.

Last spring, Greater Greater Washington was in a very different place financially. We had just formally set ourselves up as a nonprofit organization,* and through the reader drive and gifts from our board, editors, we were pulling in enough to pay for a half-time editor (Jonathan Neeley).

However, editing the blog is much more than a half time job, and a part-time job is not a recipe to keep someone for the long haul. Our all-volunteer editorial board and board of directors were amazing, but most are far more interested in urban policy than running fundraisers. What to do?

What it takes to be sustainable

We could pull off an annual reader drive, but that alone would not make a sustainable organization. We especially needed someone to run the organization—to do all the financial tracking and tax filings and office policy writing and fundraising that it takes. Plus, there was a lot more we wanted to do—write more about topics besides transit, especially housing; about Maryland and Virginia and east of the Anacostia; about politics, education, and more.

Fortunately, the Open Philanthropy Project wanted to fund organizations that care about how not enough housing for everyone pushes housing costs up and up. A combination of a direct gift from Cari Tuna and a grant to our fiscal sponsor* funded us to grow to three people: Jonathan full-time, a Managing Director (Sarah Guidi), and a Housing Program Manager, who we're working on hiring.

Big opportunity, big challenge

This is a big opportunity and we're really excited about it. It's a chance to make the blog better, and also achieve far more than we can by "just" running a blog. We're doing this to make the city and region better, and want to find ways to actually push the ideas we discuss toward action. This is chance to do that.

It also creates a big challenge. First, we have to do a great job with the housing program Cari Tuna and Open Phil have funded. Second, even though this grant let us grow to three staff, they didn't give us 100% of what we need to operate with three people. They provided two years of funding, but there's no guarantee (far from it) that we'll get another grant from them. So, we need to raise more money to keep Greater Greater Washington going at the current level.

Here's our budget

Greater Greater Washington's budget for 2016 is $253,126. This budget is a projection. It reflects what we think it will cost to run the organization in 2016 at this new level of growth.

Most of the time, organizations look at the previous year's expenses to inform the current year's budget. Since this time last year Greater Greater Washington was still a mostly volunteer organization with no full-time staff or office, we didn't really have a budget. So, we had to build one from scratch. Our actual revenues and expenses may look a bit different at the end of the year, but we will aim to keep our revenues and expenses aligned with this board-approved guideline.

What we have to pay for

Management and the board predict it will cost approximately $253,000 to run the organization in 2016. That includes running the blog, carrying out the housing program, and exploring other projects that can further Greater Greater Washington's mission. Here are the main categories of expenses we anticipate in 2016.

FY 2016 Greater Greater Washington Organizational Budget
Personnel$ 179,493
Computer and web20,210
General operating47,923
Total expenses$ 253,126

  • Personnel: salaries, benefits, and payroll taxes for three, full-time employees (Staff Editor, Housing Program Manager, and Managing Director)
  • Computer and web: server and hosting fees, plus costs for website upgrades (we are planning to move the blog to a real modern platform this year).
  • General operating: rent, insurance, legal and accounting costs, professional development, processing fees to receive donations, printing, office supplies, etc.
  • Reserve: It is good practice for a nonprofit to build a reserve that can be used to make up for the unexpected loss of a funding source, to purchase equipment not covered in a grant, or to invest in opportunities that will generate additional revenue.
Where the money will come from

Here are the types and amounts of funding we plan to raise in 2016:

Fiscal Year 2016 Greater Greater Washington Organizational Budget
Individual donors$ 72,500
Corporate sponsorships11,000
Earned income2,500
Revenue$ 262,250

We're hoping to have foundation funding plus donations from individuals (the reader drive and some large gifts) make up almost 95% of our revenue. Sponsorships from corporations and income from providing services for a fee (earned income) would make up the other 5%.

Other than the reader drive and the foundation funding from Open Phil, these categories are something of a guess as we don't have specific committed revenue for any of these yet nor do we have past years' experience with them. Therefore, there's a good chance the end totals might shift a lot. That's also why the numbers don't all add up to exactly the same as the expenses. We may, however, need to go far above in one of the categories to make up for coming in far below in another.

We hope this is helpful. Please keep the questions coming. One of our major values, as a community-driven site, is being open with you about some of what's going on behind the scenes. Thanks for being a part of our community!

* We are incorporated as District of Columbia Not-For-Profit Corporation. We have applied to the IRS to be classified federally as a 501(c)(4), which is able to talk more freely about politics (as we do on the blog) than the "typical" 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit, but also for which donations aren't tax-deductible. A fiscal sponsorship arrangement with Smart Growth America allows foundations to fund some of our 501(c)(3)-eligible activities. Read more here.


Without changes, the WMATA budget may grow increasingly unsustainable

Metro's costs are growing faster than revenues, and the agency may find itself in increasingly difficult financial shape unless something changes.

Graphs from WMATA.

If current trends continue, WMATA's costs will grow 6% a year while revenues only grow 1% a year, creating a larger and larger need for local governments to pay more, according to a presentation the WMATA Board will discuss Thursday.

While transit is a vital service in our region and one that's worth paying for, it's not realistic for local governments to keep paying a larger and larger share of their own budgets into this one service when cost growth exceeds inflation or the level of growth in local GDP.

WMATA CFO Dennis Anosike and the other staff preparing this presentation seem to have stopped trying to pretend problems don't exist. In fact, there's a whole slide entitled, "KPIs are Clear—Metro Must Improve," referring to the "Key Performance Indicators" the agency uses as management metrics.

About 70% of the forecast growth comes from adding staff or raises for staff; MetroAccess, the regional paratransit service, makes up 10% of the growth, and opening the Silver Line's Phase 2 accounts for 8%. Fuel, contracted services, and other things comprise the rest. There are also unfunded benefits and pension liabilities of $2.5 billion.

According to the presentation, WMATA would either need to get cost growth down to about 2% while keeping revenues the same, or increase revenue growth to about 8% a year, or some combination, in order to keep the local subsidies growing at 3% a year total.

What to do?

Is it possible to keep subsidy growth to 3%, and if so, how? This presentation doesn't answer that specifically, but talks about a mix of "operational efficiency" like reducing the number of staff and outsourcing some functions, saving money on supplies and utilities, other revenues like retail in stations, and changes to service.

The presentation notes that WMATA's labor contract is up for renegotiation soon. There's a constant tension between the need to pay good wages to help families reach and stay in the middle class, pay which also encourages skilled people to stay in their jobs, and the fact that in some years wages and benefits have risen faster than on local governments' payrolls or for private sector jobs.

If WMATA and the union can't reach an agreement, it goes to an arbitrator; in the past, arbitrators have awarded significant raises on the grounds that Metro could raise fares, even if that would hurt riders (and ridership). The most recent contract garnered praise for giving raises but also requiring workers to pay into their pensions.

MetroAccess paratransit rides have started growing again. A few years ago, WMATA instituted some rules (which disability advocates decried as painful cuts) to limit paratransit service more closely to the legally-required level, serving people at the times and in the places when transit service runs. The agency also tried strategies to encourage people with disabilities to use the buses and trains when possible.

A separate presentation for Thursday looks at more strategies to keep people using "fixed-route" service, like more "travel training" which teaches people with disabilities how to get around on the bus or train, more alternatives to the vans such as local taxis, stricter restrictions, and more.

The board will also discuss proposals to move more "non-regional" bus service, bus routes which aren't as much a part of a holistic regional network of important routes, to the local jurisdictions; while that just shifts costs around between governments, it could stabilize the bus costs and services inside WMATA. (More on this later.)

Don't cut service

As the presentation notes, 6% of the region's new households and 14% of the new jobs are near Metro stations, and Metro boosts local tax revenue by $200 million a year. The fact that Metro keeps driving economic growth shouldn't be lost on decision-makers.

Among the presentation's fairly exhaustive list of options is "potential targeted service adjustments to improve productivity." There are indeed ways to optimize service to work better, but it's important to avoid a situation where we gradually erode transit service until we find it far harder for people to live car-free or car-light.

Already, rail service has degraded with slowdowns to fix the tracks, more single-tracking, long weekend headways, and Metro's (now seemingly dormant) proposal to cut service; Metrobus also has seen its share of cuts over time and, worse yet, the buses are just more delayed.

The region can keep transit service at a high level and keep costs growing at a reasonable rate. It needs to be a political priority to do what it takes (once we better know what that is) to make it happen.


DC's affordable housing programs are slated to get more money than ever before

This year's DC budget includes the most funding ever for affordable housing programs: $222 million. Here's how the money will be spent:

Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Nearly half of the funds, $100 million, will go into the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF). This will pay to renovate or create 1,000 homes for low income households. Next year's funding is roughly double this year's level and is one of the highest in the trust fund's history.

The HPTF creates affordable housing through grants and loans to nonprofit and mission-driven for-profit housing developers, as well as to renters exercising their Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) rights. Housing developers and/or TOPA renters are able to use HPTF assistance to leverage additional private financing. As a result, every dollar from the trust fund results in $4-$5 of new housing development.

The HPTF targets very low and extremely low income households, who face by far the greatest need for affordable housing. Rental housing created by the HPTF must be affordable for at least 40 years, and homeownership units (which are purchased rather than rented) have to be affordable for at least 5-15 years, depending on various factors.

Since 2002, the HPTF has produced and preserved over 8,500 affordable units across the city, with 2,300 more units in the pipeline. An estimated 18,000 DC residents currently live in units funded by the Trust Fund.

Rental Assistance

The budget also includes $7 million to expand rental assistance to 500 more households through DC's Local Rent Supplement Program (LRSP). LSRP provides vouchers that cover the difference between the cost of rent and what the household can afford to pay (30 percent of income). This support can mean the difference between homelessness or couch surfing with friends and relatives, and having an adequate home to return to at the end of each (low paid) workday.

The budget also creates a new rental assistance program, called Targeted Assisted Housing, to help 500 formerly homeless families and individuals.

Altogether, DC's locally funded rental assistance will expand by 20 percent next year and serve 1,000 more households.

Permanent Supportive Housing

Another important commitment is to boost funding to end to chronic homelessness. The budget provides $34 million and expands Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) to 365 more individuals and 110 families. It fully funds the first-year recommendations of a new strategic plan developed this year by the city's Interagency Council on Homelessness.

PSH is for people who need long-term housing assistance with supportive services in order to stay housed. This national best practice offers affordable housing with case management services to chronically homeless individuals and families. Providing housing to chronically homeless residents allows them to focus on other challenges they face, such as mental illness, and has been shown to save money by reducing use of costly emergency services.

PSH does more than provide a home: it offers expert on-site case management services, such as life skills and job training, counseling for drug and alcohol abuse, and special services for people who are elderly, mentally disabled, or HIV positive. Chronically homeless (homeless for a year or for periods over the previous three years) individuals and families with a disabling condition are eligible for PSH, and can apply at any District shelter or homeless service provider.

As of 2009, there were 2,320 units of PSH in DC, providing 2,724 beds for individuals and 1,166 beds for families with children.

This is real money for affordable housing

This budget is somewhat of a landmark for the city, with the Mayor and Council demonstrating in real dollars a commitment to addressing the city's growing housing affordability crisis. A recent post explains how rising demand, rising prices, shrinking supply of low-priced units, and stagnant earnings are making DC roughly half as affordable as it was 10 years ago.

It's a big problem that requires a lot more effort. But Mayor Bowser and the DC Council deserve credit for this major step on one of the city's most serious challenges.


Mayor Bowser wants to raise DC's parking tax. Here's who would win and who would lose out

In her annual budget, Mayor Muriel Bowser has proposed fully funding DC's share of WMATA's costs. Part of that cost would come from a higher sales tax on parking garages and lots. Will the DC Council go along? If it does, who will pay more?

Photo by Trakker on Flickr.

Under Bowser's budget, the tax would rise from 18% to 22%, raising $9.9 million out of the $30.8 million by which DC's payment for Metro transit service will rise this year.

Bowser also wants to raise the general sales tax from 5.75% to 6% and use that money to fight homelessness.

Bowser's staff compiled a set of comparable cities and their parking taxes.

  • San Francisco: 25%
  • Chicago: 22% weekdays, 20% weekends
  • Baltimore: 19%
  • Pittsburgh: 31%
  • Miami: 20%
  • New York: 18.5%
The new rate would put DC around the middle of the pack among cities on this list.

Who pays if rates rise?

Most analysis of the tax, like that from DC's CFO, has assumed that parking rates will rise, and commuters will be the ones paying. Some arguments for the tax cite this as a plus.

For example, unlike many taxes, this will affect both District residents and non-District residents who commute into DC. Past DDOT analysis has estimated that about two-thirds of the vehicles on DC streets during rush hour are from non-residents. Metro service, which the tax money will help fund, also benefits people who live all across the region and not just DC residents.

Also, the federal government subsidizes parking by letting federal and private-sector workers (if their employers offer the program) pay for up to $250 a month of parking out of pre-tax salary. (Sadly, that figure is now only $130 for transit riders).

This means that if garages raise their rates in response to the rising tax, many people will not feel the full brunt of the increase. The money is going to Metro to compensate, in part, for the revenue WMATA lost when the federal transit benefit dropped to $130 in January 2014 and some long-distance riders stopped riding Metro.

Metro riders weathered a price increase of 3% for rail and 9% for bus (and double for bus-and-rail riders). A 4% increase in parking costs is wholly in line with this.

Car cost image from Shutterstock.

But... will rates rise?

This analysis assumes that the tax will drive up parking prices. Economics 101 says that if you impose a tax, it will increase the price of the good, lowering the quantity demanded. Will that happen here?

The parking market is a little different than most markets. For one thing, at least for daily parkers, garages generally post prices and collect cash payments in round numbers which include the tax. This is different from the way it works at a store or restaurant. There's incentive for the garages to keep their prices at a round number of post-tax cash dollars.

Also, parking operators are in the business to make money, so aren't they already charging as much as the market will bear? In other words, if they could raise their prices when there's a new tax, why don't they just raise their prices now regardless?

Well, isn't that true of all markets? But in most markets, competition drives down the prices of goods. If you're making more money than a small profit over and above the cost of providing the service, someone else will enter the market too and try to undercut you.

Parking isn't really a competitive market. In the short run, the supply of parking is absolutely fixed, and there isn't empty land to turn into new parking in central DC. Also, many people also only really want to park in the building where they work, are going to the doctor, etc. and aren't shopping around. That's especially true when a company is buying parking for executives.

These factors make the parking market closer to a monopoly and/or oligopoly, and consequently, the pricing is more at the level that maximizes total revenue in the entire market, a level that's higher than the perfect competition price.

Therefore, there's some reason to conclude that garages already charge as much as people will pay, and can't easily raise rates a few percent.

The other possibility is that garages actually could charge more, but nobody wants to be the first; with the tax, it will trigger a wave of price increases.

A garage in Phiadelphia. Photo by John Donges on Flickr.

Philly parking operators and an expert agree

When Philadelphia was debating the level for its parking tax, the parking operators commissioned an economic analysis that concluded that the burden would fall on them rather than on consumers. It says:

In the short run, a change in the parking tax has no impact on the parking rates paid by the consumer. Consequently, the parking facility operator pays the entire amount of a parking tax increase. Parking facility operators face the same short run problem every day—how to maximize revenue.

In other words, parking operators are already charging as much as they can and the price consumers pay is determined by the number of spaces and the demand for parking, not by the level of taxes. The level of taxation and the other costs of operating a facility do not affect the price charged or the number of spaces available unless the costs are so great that the operator shuts down the facility.

In the long run the story is quite different. An increase in parking taxes discourages the rejuvenation of aging facilities, the replacement of facilities lost to development, and the construction of additional facilities. Thus higher parking taxes will decrease the long-run supply of parking, will increase the cost to the public of parking, and will decrease profits to owners of parking facilities.

Further, should an additional parking facility be required, a higher parking tax implies that the facility will require larger subsidies to develop than it would in the absence of the parking tax increase.

Rick Rybeck, a transportation consultant who previously worked as deputy associate director for transportation policy and planning at DDOT, agreed. He wrote in an email, "For the most part, parking operators are charging the maximum prices that they can charge for parking. If operators are charging the maximum possible price for parking at their location, an increase in sales price will not immediately increase the price of parking."

"Instead, the additional tax will reduce the net revenue to the operator, effectively reducing the base price for parking that the operators collect," Rybeck added. This would just come out of their profit margin, if that margin is large enough (or, depending how the parking deals with buildings are structured, out of the building owner's revenue from leasing the parking to an operator.)

In the long run, this might lead to less incentive to build parking, though DC is not Philadelphia. The Philadelphia report is saying that it might no longer be economically viable to take land in job center areas and use it for surface parking lots or garages. In and around downtown DC, that became the case long ago, and all new parking is underground.

Underground parking is already so expensive to build that developers build what they think is necessary to attract the kinds of tenants they want. According to testimony developers have given at zoning hearings, the revenue from the parking often doesn't cover the cost of building it (though, once it's built, they certainly want to try to sell it).

Maybe a slightly higher parking tax would lead a few companies to rethink exactly how much parking they really need in an area with plentiful transit service.

Jack Evans in a car. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

What will the DC Council do?

The tax increase first has to go to the Committee on Finance and Revenue, which Jack Evans chairs. He is one of the council's most anti-tax members, but is also now the DC Council's voting representative on the WMATA Board and a longtime supporter of keeping Metro strong.

At a recent hearing on WMATA, he said, "I am a big fan of Metro. I served on the baord back in the 1990s and I serve on it again today. Metro is responsible for moving a million people around the area and is critical to the well-being of the metropolitan area."

Evans may not like the tax, but if he wants his committee to remove it, he might have to find the money elsewhere in his committee's budget. More likely, he could try to convince Chairman Phil Mendelson to rearrange the budget in other areas to make up for the money. Evans also opposes the sales tax increase.

In an op-ed in the Georgetowner, Evans wrote,

What is my greatest concern in my initial review of the budget? Proposals to increase our sales and parking taxes. ... This latest [parking tax increase] is a triple whammy. When it's more expensive and difficult to find a parking spot, people are less likely to go out, spend money in the District and generate tax revenue.

Plus, most of these costs get passed on to residents, making it more expensive for people to park near their offices, restaurants and stores. More than a third of those parking in garages are District residents. So, in effect, we are taxing our own people again and again.

Evans makes one strange link when he talks about parking being "more expensive and difficult to find." In truth, more expensive does not mean more difficult. If anything, it's the reverse; more expensive parking means there's more available and it's easier to find. Also, when Evans says a third of affected drivers are District residents, even if drivers do pay more (which isn't certain), two-thirds come from outside DC.

Evans' committee will mark up its section of the DC budget on May 13. After that Chairman Mendelson will propose his own set of changes, and the council will vote on the budget on May 27th.


What's behind the budget cuts at Wilson High School

DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has defended her plan to cut Wilson High School's budget by over 10% per student next year, citing a DC law that requires DCPS to redirect funds to at-risk students. But most of the cut isn't required by that law.

Photo of desk and scissors from Shutterstock.

DCPS plans to spend $8,300 on each student at Wilson, the lowest amount it has allocated to any school on a per-pupil basis for next year.

Designed to accommodate 1550 students, Wilson will serve almost 1800 next year, according to DCPS projections. That's an increase of 170 students over this year's enrollment. Nonetheless, DCPS wants to cut the school's budget by about $300,000.

The Wilson community has protested that class sizes, already high, could climb to 40, and that the cut will hurt the school's efforts to support its lower-income students. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh has argued that the planned cut could "dramatically shake" the confidence parents across the District have begun to feel in the relatively high-performing school.

While Wilson is located in Ward 3, its attendance zone extends into other wards. And 43% of its students live outside that zone.

At some other schools, the overall per-pupil spending will be almost twice what DCPS has allocated to Wilson. This interactive graphic, produced by a new coalition of DC education advocates with the help of Code for DC, shows the range of budget allocations for all DCPS schools.

Henderson's justification for the cut in funds

Henderson has argued that Wilson is losing funds because it has a lower concentration of at-risk students than many other DCPS schools. Two years ago, the DC Council passed legislation providing that DC schools spend an additional $2,000 on each at-risk student, a category that includes those who are homeless, in foster care, on welfare or food stamps, or a year or more behind in high school.

DCPS projects that Wilson will have 582 at-risk students next year, a number that makes up 31% of its student body. That's a large increase over this year's figure of 343, and 582 is greater than the total number of students at some other high schools. But at many DCPS schools, 70% or more students are at-risk.

As an example of how the new at-risk allocations will affect Wilson, Henderson cited a DCPS program that awards money for projects proposed by individual schools. Beginning next year, the funding for that program will be tied to the number of at-risk students a school has, a change that Henderson said will result in a loss of $140,000 at Wilson.

DCPS chose to fund other priorities rather than Wilson

But that explains only a fraction of the cut to Wilson's budget. The remainder does have something to do with at-risk funding, but the connection is indirect.

Last year, DCPS officials said they didn't have time to allocate the $40 million they got in at-risk funds in direct proportion to the number of at-risk students at each school, as the law required. Instead, they pooled the money and used it to fund priorities they had already set for the current school year, such as improving middle schools. They argued those priorities primarily benefited schools with high at-risk populations.

For next year, the DCPS budget does distribute at-risk funding proportionally. But school officials didn't want to pull the plug on initiatives they started last year with the at-risk funds they had pooled. So, Henderson explained in a letter to Cheh, they "identified acceptable cuts elsewhere" in order to continue to fund them. They also wanted to focus on schools with at-risk students and the priority DCPS has set for this year, high schools.

In a heated exchange with Cheh at a DC Council hearing yesterday, Henderson elaborated on her view of what the at-risk legislation requires. (The exchange begins at about an hour and 12 minutes into the hearing.)

"Those funds were to be distributed proportionally," Henderson told Cheh. "It didn't say what number do you have, it's what proportion. I don't know how we distribute proportionally and not have loss at schools that have lower proportions. That's the law."

But in fact, the legislation says nothing about targeting schools with high proportions of at-risk students. It requires DCPS to direct at-risk funds "to schools proportionally based upon the number of at-risk students within each school's projected student count." And in apparent accordance with that reading of the law, DCPS did allocate at-risk funds to Wilson for next year based on the number of at-risk students it's projected to have.

DCPS eliminated Wilson's per-pupil funding minimum

What DCPS chose to cut was Wilson's "per-pupil funding minimum," or PPFM. DCPS came up with the PPFM three years ago to make sure schools with larger enrollments weren't getting shortchanged. The problem stems from the fact that DCPS doesn't allocate money to individual schools on a per-pupil basis. Instead, it gives each school funds for a certain set of staff positions.

DCPS generally funds those positions at the same amount, regardless of how many students attend the school. At large schools, costs like the principal's salary are spread over a greater number of students, resulting in lower funding per pupil than at small schools. To offset that effect, DCPS decided to ensure that per-pupil funding at larger schools wouldn't fall below about $9,000.

But, Henderson said, that policy cost the school system about $9 million this year, including $3 million at Wilson alone. Many of the schools receiving PPFM funds have relatively low concentrations of at-risk students. So DCPS officials decided to cut the PPFM payments for all schools other than Wilson. There, it eliminated the PPFM altogether.

That $3 million PPFM cut explains why Wilson's funding for next year is so low. As the budget data tool shows, the funds Wilson will get in other categories, including at-risk, have actually increased.

Henderson says the cuts at Wilson will be "mostly" offset by new investments that all high schools will get next year, such as a new athletics and extracurricular coordinator. But Wilson parents say that change will actually result in the elimination of one of two current staff positions, and that the overall effect of the new investments on Wilson's budget is nil.

Overcrowding at Wilson is the basic problem

The basic problem is that Wilson has too many students, while other neighborhood high schools are underenrolled. In her letter, Henderson also outlined several plans for decreasing Wilson's population next year.

For example, she pointed to over 100 out-of-bounds students there who have more than ten unexcused absences. DCPS will start enforcing an existing policy that would send such students back to their zoned schools, she said.

But Wilson parent leaders say measures like that won't make up for the cuts. And education activist Matt Frumin, a former Wilson parent, argues that enforcing the attendance policy could have harsh results. DCPS defines "unexcused absence" to include instances when a student is late, perhaps because she had to accompany a younger sibling to another school.

As a longer-term solution, Henderson pointed to the new school boundary plan that will shrink Wilson's attendance zone. But because most students are grandfathered in to their current feeder patterns, the effect on Wilson's population is years away. And Frumin, who was a member of the committee that drew up the new boundaries, says the changes will prevent Wilson's overcrowding from getting worse but won't solve the problem.

Frumin and others arguing on Wilson's behalf are asking that the school get an additional $900,000 next year. Henderson says she's already cut her administrative budget by $15 million, and there's no way to find money for Wilson without inflicting harm on other schools.

No one, including advocates for Wilson, wants that to happen. It's possible that the DC Council will appropriate additional money for the school. But one way or another, DCPS should at least treat Wilson the way it's treating other large schools that have benefited from the PPFM in the past: by reducing that allotment rather than eliminating it entirely.

Henderson may be right in feeling that schools with higher proportions of at-risk students need additional help. But she's mistaken in claiming that the law requires her to divert as much funding as she has from Wilson. And that claim doesn't accord with the clearly discretionary decision-making process she described in her letter to Cheh.

Even as a matter of policy, depriving Wilson of the funds it needs to succeed, and to help its nearly 600 at-risk students succeed, doesn't make sense.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

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