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Pre-K Vote Passes After School Board’s Contentious Debate

Patti Singer

Community members attend the Feb. 27, 2020 school board meeting on a proposal to close two schools and make them pre-K centers. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

After more than an hour of robust debate that for a few moments turned contentious, the Rochester City School District Board of Education voted to close Schools 44 and 57 and use the buildings to bolster the district’s prekindergarten programs.

The discussion and ultimately the 5-2 vote in favor of Superintendent Terry Dade’s proposal came after about a dozen parents and people associated with the community based organizations (CBOs) that partner with the district on pre-K spoke Feb. 27 against the plan.

Vice president Cynthia Elliott and Beatriz LeBron voted against the proposal. Elliott had introduced an amendment that would close the schools but not reuse them for pre-K. Both have ties to CBOs that provide pre-K. They sought advice from district counsel about potential conflicts of interest, but based on general municipal law and Board Policy 2160, were told they were able to vote.

Ricardo Adams, Amy Maloy, Willa Powell, Natalie Sheppard and Board president Van White voted for the proposal.

Under Dade’s plan, the district would seek more parity with the CBOs and try to achieve a 55%-45% split. Right now, the district serves about 40 % of 3- and 4-year-olds and the CBOs serve 60%.

School 44 on Chili Avenue and School 57 on Costar Street will close at the end of the current school year and over the summer be renovated to serve as pre-K centers. The cost is about $750,000, which Dade said is in the budget of the cash-strapped district. The district faces a potential $60 million deficit for the 2020-2021 school year and is awaiting word on state aid to help it close multimillion deficits from the current and previous year.

Dade is scheduled to present the 2020-2021 budget to the board at its meeting on March 17 at district offices, 131 W. Broad St.

Dade has said the pre-K proposal has short- and long-term benefits. He said closing Schools 44 and 57 from their current elementary use would save money, and turning them into pre-K centers to bring about 500 children back into the district can help to reverse a trend of declining enrollment.

Both claims were challenged during the public comment period and in the debate among board members.

About a dozen parents and people associated with the community based organizations addressed the board.

The board announced that it had received 855 signatures in opposition to the pre-K resolution. To illustrate their point, Gladys Pedraza-Burgos of Action for a Better Community, one of the CBOs providing pre-K services, displayed a large net filled with rolled up petitions and a sign that read “ABC Safety Net.”

She, like other speakers, said the proposal was being rushed and “there was not enough information to support this disruption” to children’s education. Speakers cited concerns about transportation, teacher quality and parent engagement.

The state Education Department requires that requests for major changes to schools be submitted by March 1. The state was expected to approve the plan.

During their debate, board members expressed concern over costs, the specifics of the plan, community involvement and maintaining the partnership with the CBOs that have earned the pre-K program acclaim. Some members said that not all seats already allocated to the district were filled. They did not say whether all seats allocated to CBOs were filled.

Elliott questioned why the district was focusing on pre-K rather than other aspects that would create what she called a quality education experience. “I don’t get, why would we try to pimp the community based organizations with their program to try to make the district program better.”

Sheppard took issue with that description and said the district is going to have to restructure its entire approach, and that pre-K is one part of the work that needs to be done. She also said it was not the district’s responsibility to preserve CBOs that also perform other community functions.

White said the proposal was not intended to pit the district against the CBOs. He said both offer quality programs and the district has a right to compete. “We don’t need to devour each other. … There’s no reason for anybody to be maligning anybody here. … There’s no reason for us to devour each other, so stop it.”

Elliott tried to interject her displeasure at the word “devour,” but White did not yield the floor.

During the debate and afterward, Dade seemed to bristle at the notion that the district’s pre-K programs were not as good as those offered by the CBOs. “You can value your experience around the CBOs, but don’t diminish the impact that Dr. Robin Hooper has had on the award-winning pre-K that is nationally recognized.”

Hooper is the director of the district’s early education program.

Dade acknowledged that CBOs may feel unsure about how the plan will be implemented, but he said some of it is not much different from how CBOs are evaluated each year when they want to renew their participation.