The mayor is praising a proposal to have a “monitor” of the Rochester City School District’s educational and fiscal policies and programs, but the school board president is pushing back, calling the plan redundant.
The monitor is included in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed fiscal year 2021 budget, which has a deadline of April 1 to be passed.
According to the proposal, the monitor will be appointed by the commissioner of the state Department of Education and the mayor of Rochester. The monitor should have experience in school finances and experience at least elementary and secondary education, how school districts operate in the state, special education and/or educating English language learners.
The job of the monitor would be to “ provide oversight, guidance and technical assistance related to the educational and fiscal policies, practices, programs and decisions of the school district, the board of education and the superintendent,” according to the budget proposal.
The scope of the monitor’s duties is where Mayor Lovely Warren and Board of Education President Van White disagreed.
“We’ve been pushing for the state to come in and do something about the challenges that have been going on on the City School District for the last couple of years,” Warren said Jan. 22 in a news conference. “I am going to support the state coming in and doing what we asked them to do, which is to provide the academic and fiscal support that is needed here in Rochester because our school board has failed to do their due diligence and failed to live up to what they were elected to do.”
Contacted after the mayor answered reporters’ questions, White said having an additional set of eyes on the district’s finances could be instructional and helpful. “If the monitor is being brought in … to create some plan, there’s a high level of redundancy in that.”
White said the district has responded to the report in 2018 by Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino, and that plan has been accepted by the state.
“For the monitor to come in or for the legislature to say we must now create a plan and submit it … we have better things to do, to wit, execute that (existing) plan. We don’t need another person coming in here to tell us to create a plan that the state of New York has already approved.”
The governor’s proposal comes as the district is figuring out how to close a potentially $64 million budget gap by June. The board approved staff reductions by Superintendent Terry Dade, and he has made other spending cuts. The district also is asking the state for $25 million.
However, on Jan. 23 the Office of the State Comptroller released its report on the district finances. It said the district could incur a deficit of approximately $31.6 million for this academic year, even after Dade’s cost-saving measures. The district has no fund balances to help lessen the amount.
The report said the district could run out of money before the end of its fiscal year on June 30. The report called for additional budget or staffing cuts in the 2020-21 budget.
The report also reviewed the potential savings from measures Dade already took and found they may not save as much as originally thought.
Before the comptroller’s report, the district’s finances were drawing unwanted attention. The bond-rating agency Moody’s took a look at the city’s credit rating. A lower rating can mean the city pays higher interest when borrowing money.
According to the budget proposal, the monitor cannot be a resident or employee of the district, or a relative of a board member at the time of his or her appointment. The district will pay “reasonable and necessary expenses incurred by the monitor” for performing official duties.
Those duties include:
- Attending all board meetings, including executive sessions, as long as the monitor doesn’t constitute a quorum.
- Scheduling three public hearings – the first on regulatory authority of the state, the second on district academic performance and the third on district financial performance – to be held withing 60 days of appointment
- Reviewing the upcoming year’s budget to make sure it is balanced in the context of mandate programs and is consistent with the district academic improvement plan.
- Presenting findings to the school board, the mayor and commissioner of education within a specific timeframe.
- Notifying the mayor, commissioner and board when s/he deems the district in violating the financial or academic improvement plan.
- Working with the superintendent to develop by Nov. 1 an academic improvement plan for the 2020-2021 and four subsequent school years. The plan will have recommendations to improve performance in areas the commissioner deems to be in need. There are provisions if the monitor and board disagree on the plan.
Warren said the proposed monitor would be a bold start in addressing issues facing the district. “What I wanted was for the state to actually come into the city of Rochester to put in place someone that could actually give the children of Rochester what they deserve, which is a quality education, which is a fiscal situation that does not cause them to scramble in the middle of the school year. I believe this is the first step.”
Last year, she supported a referendum that would have let voters decide whether the state could take over the schools, at least on a short-term basis. The district challenged the referendum and prevailed in court.
Warren said that the city has not had a say in the district. The district, however, is financially dependent on the city, and the board has criticized the city for not increasing over the past few years the amount it provides.
While Warren said the district did not heed the Aquino’s report, White said the district had to answer to the state on the problems identified by the distinguished educator. White said that even before Aquino, the district had been improving and he cited steadily rising graduation rates. Recently, state data showed 63% rate in August 2019. “This year, we’ll be knocking on the door of 70%.”
He said that if the district had to create a new plan, it would be spending more time and more money and possibly interfere with what he said is the academic progress reflected in the graduation rates.
According to the proposal, the act establishing the monitor would expire June 30, 2021.