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‘I Am Because We Are’ How Ubuntu Links Community to RCSD Budget Shortfall

Patti Singer

Who is responsible for the potentially $64.8 million budget gap the Rochester City School District faces at the end of this academic year?

Some will say it’s all the district’s fault for a pattern of overspending and failing to budget properly.

Some will blame the city for keeping its funding to the district at $119 million for the past 20 years.

Some will blame the state for not living up to an agreement that would bring more money to urban schools.

Van White, foreground, president of the Rochester City School District, uses the concept of ubuntu in his remarks to City Council members on Oct. 10, 2019. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

The Office of the State Comptroller and the federal Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating to find out what happened and why.

School board president Van White might choose all of the above – and more. In his remarks to City Council in the days after the shortfall was announced, he used the African word ubuntu to provide context for the problem and its aftermath.

Teachers, parents and students protested in December the proposed layoffs of staff in an attempt to help close the gap, and students returned after Christmas break to classrooms that have lost teachers and paraprofessionals. In that context, Minority Reporter revisits a conversation with White about why he used the concept of ubuntu to impart his view of shared responsibility for the district’s straits.

What is ubuntu?

The African term conveys the connectedness of individuals and systems in our world. It also suggests to us that relationship is reciprocal. Ubuntu tells us I am because we are. We are all one. What is done to one is done to the other.

Why use ubuntu?

Ubuntu suggests we are all part of a broader system, and in our circumstances it is a system that is struggling, is distressed, and has significant challenges – many of which have origins outside our school walls.

Ubuntu suggests we are all part of a broader system, and in our circumstances it is a system that is struggling, is distressed, and has significant challenges – many of which have origins outside our school walls.

(White cited Rochester’s poverty statistics, district data that showed that almost 9 percent of students were homeless at any time during the academic year and learning difficulties related to lead paint in older homes.)

How did you learn about ubuntu?

I have parents that, even though my father is from Memphis and my mom’s people are from Penn Yan, always taught us where we were originally from. My dad, though he never used collective impact, did use the word ubuntu. … The beautiful thing about ubuntu is it’s about community cohesion.

Why use ubuntu in this context?

Superintendent (Terry) Dade talks about one family. … Ubuntu goes one step further. It doesn’t just say we’re one family because not everybody buys into that. Whether we’re family or not, we’re a collective. Ubuntu is about collective impact. But collective impact is about the positive way in which you gather resources and people to address problems. Ubuntu also says that hey, what you do that’s negative can hurt me. It’s not just let’s work together. If you only give me $119 million and you don’t adjust that for inflation for 20 years even though you’re getting more money yourself, that could hurt us.

Why should there be a collective response when on the surface it appears that the budget problem was the error, either by omission or commission, of a small group of people?

That’s a good question but this concept exists (away from) the context of blame. … It’s a point of view that seeks to avoid ascribing blame. Basically, we share the benefits and the burdens of our human condition. … What I was trying to do was say we could look at this in a very myopic way – this is a problem the district has caused or, getting more micro about it, certain people within central office caused. But the reality is this is a challenge that we all own.

You invoked ubuntu at least a half dozen times in your remarks. You used the word when you answered questions from council. Why repeat ubuntu so often?

We have to understand that we share in the benefits and burdens of being the city of Rochester, the county of Monroe, the state of New York and the United States of America. Until we appreciate the fact that we share in the creation of the benefits and the resolution of the burdens, we will not move forward the way we need to. Currently the dialogue is it’s the district’s problem. You guys did this, or a certain person. Ubuntu embraces the concept that if it’s problem, it’s all of our problem. I believe the facts support the notion that it’s all of our problem.

(White gave two examples of how ubuntu ties together the district and the city. The first was an announcement Sept. 26 from Moody’s Investor Service said the city’s bond rating could be lowered because of the school district’s budget shortfall. The announcement said that because the city asked the state to separate it from the district, there were questions about the ongoing relationship between city hall and the district.

The second example was a letter Oct. 25 from Mayor Lovely Warren to Dade proposing that the city’s budget and finance team work with those of the district is an example of ubuntu. The mayor also acknowledged ubuntu, writing to Dade that “the fates of the Rochester City School District and the City of Rochester are inextricably linked. I propose this partnership for the good of the community … .”)

Is using ubuntu a diversion from the district’s responsibility?

I said multiple times that there was never any equivocating on what happened financially, but it happens in a context. A context that we cannot and should not ignore.”

(White said the district bears a financial burden not only from having received the same funding from the city for 20 years, but also because of higher-needs students. He said that in 2017-18, it cost the district $28,478 to educate a student with special needs versus $11,640 to educate a student in the general population. He also said charter schools and suburban schools send back students who have complex needs.)

Ubuntu says we cannot ignore what happened here at central office, nor can we ignore the fact that the city has given us $119 million for the last 20 years. … But ubuntu says that you cannot ignore the conduct of other people. Ubuntu would not accept such a conversation. … Ubuntu says you got to talk about things that other people do that have an impact on where this district is at.

If we were a boat, everybody would have to grab an oar. To say the district needs to row us to shore, we don’t have the resources to get our community to shore. If we did, it would be a one-sided trip, we’d be circling around, we’d be staffing one side of the boat. We need the county executive, we need the mayor, we need the city council we need everyone to take up an oar. … You will see the district taking responsibility for what we need to do in terms of picking up our oars and digging into the torturous waters and getting to shore. But if we walk away from this moment thinking that the district was the only one that was responsible for learning something from this, or contributing something in the challenge, we’ll be going in circles.