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Thursday 21 November 2019
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Nov. 12 shaping up as big day in RCSD budget saga

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

Rochester City Council Finance Committee meets Oct. 10, 2019 with RCSD officials.
Video by Patti Singer

Rochester City School Superintendent Terry Dade said that by Nov. 12, he’d give City Council an outline of how the school district plans to close a $30.1 million budget gap by June.

RCSD Superintendent Terry Dade, far left, school board vice president Cynthia Elliott and president Van White listen to questions from members of City Council Finance Committee on Oct. 10, 2019. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

“… There will be cuts, no question,” Dade said Oct. 10, after he and school board president Van White answered questions for about 90 minutes from City Council’s Finance Committee.

How many cuts, and whether they are made surgically or done across the board seem yet to be decided.

Dade said there is a list of items for review and that staff, the school and community will have the opportunity to give feedback on short- and long-term solutions.

The Rochester City School District budget saga began in late September, when the district announced that an external audit of the 2018-2019 year found a shortfall.

But the issue goes beyond one academic year. Members of council’s Finance Committee questioned the soundness of the budgets for the current 2019-20 and upcoming 2020-2021 years.

Dade admitted to “a little heartburn” addressing a shortfall for this academic year “knowing that we’re going to unveil new information as each week goes by.”

Additionally, concern over the district’s budget could affect the city’s bond rating, which determines what it costs to borrow money for capital projects. In late September, City Council passed a resolution asking the state to “institute immediate structured and monitored financial constraints” on the district. The Office of the State Comptroller has started an audit of the district.

At a meeting Oct. 8 of the district’s audit committee, Dade announced he had accepted the resignation of the budget director.

“There is a crisis of confidence when it comes to your organization,” council member Michael Patterson said.

White acknowledged that the budget problems may overshadow advances in the classroom. The district recently announced its highest graduation rate in more than two decades and lowest out-of-school suspension rate in four years.

City Council member Mitch Gruber, left, and RCSD Superintendent Terry Dade chat before a meeting of council’s Finance Committee Oct. 10, 2019. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

“We will guard and protect these gains as vigorously as we seek additional methods to guard and protect the taxpayers’ dollars,” he said.

Dade worked off the presentation he made to the audit committee two days earlier.

Among the points:

  • Financial stability has been in question for several years due to expenses exceeding revenues and underbudgeting in several key areas. The district has been using savings to balance the budget for at least the past three years.
  • In four years, the district added 1,064 staff members, including 632 teachers.
  • The district overspent in health and dental insurance, substitute teachers, tuition at charter schools and agencies, retirement benefits, contract transportation and BOCES.

Councilmember Mitch Gruber asked Dade about expenses related to substitutes, considering the increase in the number of teachers.

Dade said he would look at how substitutes are deployed, as well as issues of teacher attendance. “We’re looking at the importance of our students being in school each and every day. I hold myself and other adults in the district to the same expectation. … That’s something I want to put my eyes on. … By making folks aware that we have an issue with attendance at the adult level, I believe our staff will respond accordingly.”

Dade said the district has lost one-quarter of its student population over the past 17 years. He said the community faces decisions about school choice and what comes with that, such as transportation and the number buildings.

Those areas are under review in the long term, but Dade said they require a “family conversation.”

In the short term, areas under review include elementary and middle summer school, extended learning time and professional development. A hiring freeze is in effect.