By Tyronda James
The Rochester City School District Board of Education passed the proposed 2020-21 budget during a special business meeting May 7.
The proposed budget (Resolution 878) as amended was passed by a roll call vote of 6-1.
Board Vice President Cynthia Elliott introduced an amendment to ensure that the Department of Law reports to the General Counsel and that the General Counsel reports jointly to the Board and the Superintendent, according to RCSD website. Board members approved the amendment.
The entire budget process had been a challenge. The budget is proposed by the superintendent and voted on by the board. The district was faced with an $87 million deficit, and as the board deliberated over the past few weeks, Superintendent Terry Dade left for another job.
“This budget was not taken lightly as some in the community may think it was,” Elliott said. “It was a very difficult process but at the end of the day this board has had to do what it had to do in terms of closing a budget gap and preparing this budget for the next school year.”
Prior to the vote, the board heard comments from the public. Speakers all encouraged a “no” vote to the proposed budget and to cuts of staff and the closures of schools and programs.
Prof. Patricia Tweet, Ph. D. encouraged votes against the budget due to school closures specifically regarding School No. 20.
“Closing a school that anchors a distressed neighborhood should be the very last choice of the Board of Education and the Rochester City Council. School 20 is located at the center of the cluster of the most economically depressed census tracks in Rochester where the poverty rate exceeds 50%. Housing abandonment and open air drug markets also plague this community,” she said.
“The amount of support that students need in our district can’t be quantified by money,” said Caswell Smith, a school social worker at Nathaniel Rochester Community School No. 3. Smith asked that board members consider consistency and ramifications of decisions to close schools and cuts to social work staff. It will have “an impact on the social, emotional well-being of students,” said Smith.
The budget proposed changes to social work staff, the closing of some RCSD schools and programs, and other reductions. Includes the closing of Schools No. 22, 3, 43, and 57, the Young Mothers and Interim Health Academy, Bilingual Language and Literacy Academy, and Rochester International Academy. It proposed converting the Integrated Arts & Technology HS and Vanguard Collegiate High School into one school, as well as the conversion of School No. 3 to a middle school.
Also proposed cuts to arts departments across all schools.
“This is a budget that we all know in some respect widens the gap that we are continuously trying to close for our students here in Rochester,” said Commissioner Natalie Sheppard, who directed her comments to the Rochester community.
Commissioner Beatriz LeBron, chair of the Finance Committee, read a statement that she said she’d be submitting to District Clerk Marisol O. Ramos-Lopez to have on record verbatim. LeBron said as board member she’s been consistently pushing for the last 2½ years for the board for RCSD “to be fiscally responsible with the dollars” they receive.
LeBron said she would not be voting for the budget but will “continue to push for fiscal responsibility and accountability to put our students first.”
Board President Van Henri White said he realizes there is great pain associated with the loss of social workers and art teachers and other caring and committed adults throughout the RCSD district, “but the circumstance does not allow us to avoid that pain.”
On behalf of the board, White thanked the entire Rochester city school district family for their patience through what he called very difficult times.
“It’s been an exceptionally difficult year for everyone, in and outside of 131 West Broad Street. You all, (that is the Rochester community) held it down during mid-year cuts, during the COVID crisis, and the unexpected and unanticipated loss of a superintendent. We the Board of Education see you and we appreciate everything you do for this community.”
White also thanked his colleagues and the board’s Finance Department, specifically naming Deputy Superintendent Lynda Quick.
Quick took over budget presentations after Dade announced his departure. He had not been seen publicly since news broke that he was leaving for the Cornwall Central School District in the Hudson Valley.
“The budget is a result of a lot of good people, caring people and committed peoples who want nothing but the best for its students,” White said.
Before the roll call vote White said that the board members received hundreds of emails from the community, “we read those emails and we listened,” said White.
“This budget that is Resolution 878 reflects the fact that we have read and acted upon those emails.” White said amongst the emails were requests repeatedly made for “deeper cuts to central office.”
“When this budget was originally proposed by my recollection it called for only $2.5 million in cuts. We ended up with $3.3 million in cuts to central office.”
Emails to board member also included requests to restore various positions including social workers, the African American Studies Department, the Chief of Special Education, the Director of Arts and more … to which White said “most were restored.”
White then said that the result is that these efficiencies were created “but they are not at an additional cost of this district … some positions were created at the elimination of others.”
The meeting concluded with the vote of 6-1.
“It’s a whole lot that I don’t like about this budget, it’s a whole lot,” said Commissioner Ricardo Adams.
Adams said he’s in a fight that he can’t win, “I’ve always thought I could win any fight I’ve been in always but this one … we in the hole here.”
“This fight is not over and in fact it’s just beginning. We cannot let our foot off the pedal,” said Sheppard echoing Adams sentiments.