During a period of fiscal conservatism, a former top finance official in the Washington, D.C., schools recalled at a conference here how she tried to do the right thing—but may have ended up taking money away from where it was urgently needed.
More than a decade ago, Rebecca Sibilia, who is now founder and CEO of EdBuild, was the chief financial officer overseeing a $1 billion budget for D.C. schools, which was just emerging from years of budget woes. Due to the constraints of the bureaucracy, Sibilia was required to move millions of dollars into a surplus fund in an effort to bolster the district’s financial stability. But in taking that step, it meant 7,000 students did not receive $550 each in per-pupil funding, she recalled Sunday
The decision was made after the city’s schools, which were in physical decay, received a much-needed infusion of funding. Still, the district was operating in an environment that brought a focus on numbers and responsibility that bordered on “intense paranoia,” she said.
“I did that in the interest of maintaining a system that didn’t even make sense at that point,” Sibilia told attendees at a VIP session for Future of Education Finance Summit. “By playing my role in a system that I never questioned, I stood in the way of improvement for students.”
Now, Sibilia works to bring common sense and fairness to the way states fund education through EdBuild, the organization she founded and runs.
The nonprofit researches the sometimes dramatic discrepancies in the availability of school funding, and the boundary lines drawn that result in property taxes in one higher-income jurisdiction not being shared in the schools of much lower-income communities next door. Last year, her organization released a report called “Fault Lines: America’s Most Segregating School District Borders.”
Today, “54 million students live in high-poverty districts,” Sibilia said. “We can’t ever forget that we have children’s lives in our hands…It’s incumbent on us to tell the stories we see every day.”
“We’re not just accountants and researchers,” she said. “We’re given the privilege to work on behalf of the children.”
The summit, which is an opportunity for education budget professionals and district leaders to network, learn, and discuss trends and challenges in education finance, continues here today. The event is sponsored by Allovue, a Baltimore-based education finance technology company, and the Reason Foundation, a libertarian free-market think tank.