Mayor Vincent Gray's office is diverting millions of dollars that the District has saved in special-education costs away from the city's public schools and into projects like the One City Summit, the Lincoln Theatre and the Southwest Waterfront, District officials told The Washington Examiner.

The District is required to pay private-school tuition for special-needs students whose services can't be met by the public schools' special-education program, a historically troubled program that is under federal court supervision.

But since January 2011, the number of students in private placements has dropped from 2,204 to 1,763 as most return to the public schools. As a result, the city is spending $16 million less on private placements than its budget of $150 million.

Following the money
How $2.03 million of $16 million saved in special-education funding has been spent:
• $1.5 million to the Department of Disabilities to offset the loss of a federal grant
• $200,000 for a full-time employee focused on Ward 7's economic development
• $155,000 for Southwest Waterfront development
• $100,000 to cover transition and personnel costs of the Lincoln Theatre
• $76,000 to the One City Summit
Source: D.C. Office of Budget and Finance

Gray's office so far approved $100,000 to be spent on the Lincoln Theatre; $155,000 on Southwest Waterfront development; $200,000 for a full-time employee focused on Ward 7's economic development; $1.5 million to the Department of Disabilities to offset the loss of a federal grant; and $76,000 to his One City Summit.

Staff in the mayor's budget office said another 10 items are pending, some of which are education-related. They could not say how much funding would go to the schools and for which projects.

Gray initially said the funds for his $600,000 One City Summit, a citizen-engagement event, would be split between taxpayers and private donors, but ultimately used $557,000 of city funds.

"We'd love to put all the money back in education -- there's no question about that," said Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro. "But at the end of the day, the District is legally required to have a balanced budget. Sometimes you have to change things around, and the first thing you do is look for savings."

Parents and educators said they were upset that the $16 million wasn't being spent on special-needs students. HyeSook Chung, executive director of D.C. Action for Children and a Janney Elementary parent, pointed out that as many as 23 D.C. schools aren't fully handicap-accessible.

"I'm a D.C. resident and I probably would not have wanted that funding to be used that way [on One City]. I would have invested in children," Chung said. "I know philosophically [Gray] wants that, I just wish he would do that, and show us he wants to do that."

Maria Angala, a special-education teacher at Jefferson Middle School, said her students could use additional support and that teachers could benefit from more specialized training. "I don't think it is possible to reprogram at least $2 million away from education without affecting our students; our kids could benefit so much from that amount of money," Angala said.

More than 100 of the students are in public schools not because the schools improved, but because Rock Creek Academy -- a private school that put misbehaving students in "isolation rooms" -- was closed.

"I understand the budget is driven by what's happening right now, but as someone who has a child on the spectrum, as someone who is in contact with other families, we're not just worried about right now," said Yetta Myrick, president and founder of D.C. Autism Parents. "We're worried about when they're adults. We're worried about what happens when we leave this earth. The reality is it's going to be the city's financial problem when these kids aren't functioning at the level they should be as adults."

lgartner@washingtonexaminer.com