D.C. schools open with finances in disarray 'The system as it currently exists is clearly broken,' one official says


WASHINGTON -- The problems of the District of Columbia's school system mirror those of Washington itself, which is struggling to overcome a fiscal crisis created by poor management and its dependence on federal financing. And the school system is mired in investigations of poor management and potential mismanagement.

Dropout rates at the district's schools are among the nation's highest, and the student achievement rates are routinely lower than the national average. School buildings are so dilapidated that six of them could not open on schedule because of fire code violations. And school officials have been accused of improperly diverting millions of dollars into other programs.

But in a city that is in the throes of an acute financial crisis, and where half the students' families receive welfare, solutions to such problems have been hard to find.

At a hearing earlier this month on the school system's problems, Andrew Brimmer, chairman of the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, said, "The system as it currently exists is clearly broken."

The financial control board has watched over the fiscal management of the nearly bankrupt city since last year, when it was created by Congress.

'In a state of crisis'

Abdusalam Omer, the school system's chief financial officer, said at the hearing that bad management over the years had left the system's finances in disarray and the system itself "in a state of crisis."

Omer, who was appointed by the city's chief financial officer a month ago to bring order to the schools' financial management, said shoddy fiscal practices over the last three years made tracking dollars extremely difficult. He said school officials had diverted more than $12 million from food programs to pay for other things, including salaries for special education personnel, but some of that money could not be accounted for.

Omer also criticized school officials for what he said were improper priorities. He cited, for example, improving science laboratories when school roofs needed repair.

Franklin L. Smith, the superintendent who was appointed by the school board five years ago, has been accused of mismanagement, and a contract he approved last year is the subject of a grand jury investigation.

Under that $875,000 contract, a 26-year-old insurance broker who was a friend of a school board member ran a program for emotionally disturbed students. Smith canceled the contract after the program encountered major financial difficulties.

Smith has also been criticized for failing to have all the schools ready to open this year.

Six of the district's 164 schools could not open at the start of school because they had not met fire code standards. So 3,000 children were diverted to classes in churches, school cafeterias and Southeastern University. At St. John's CME Church in southeastern Washington, second-graders attended classes in surroundings that were in many ways much nicer than their closed school around the corner.

Some bright spots

On Sept. 5, Judge Faye K. Christian of the District of Columbia Superior Court ordered three of the schools to be reopened.

Members of the financial control board have made it clear that they are just as dissatisfied with the district's school board as they are with Franklin. And frustrated parents maintain that the district government, Congress and uninvolved parents all share the blame.

There are bright spots in the district's public schools. Students at Alice Deal Junior High School routinely score high on national standardized tests. The acclaimed Dunbar High School has a strong engineering program. And, under a partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, students at Hart Junior High School in southeast Washington wrote a play.

But in general, the district's 80,000 students - a figure that is itself in dispute - lag behind national rankings on standardized tests. Nearly 40 percent drop out, one of the highest rates in the country.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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