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RCSD Takes New Approach to Budget Discussion with Community

Carol Elizabeth Owens

The Rochester City School District has started going directly to residents to help them understand the budget crisis.

The school board is holding town hall meetings to explain the budget process and provide an opportunity for input regarding budget planning for the 2020-2021 school year.

“We are doing this for the first time ever,” said Beatriz LeBron, chairperson of the Board of Education’s finance committee. “This town hall budget meeting is strictly to let folks know how to open up our budget book, how to look for information, what’s in each section, [share] a little bit more about how our funding is actually spent, where we get our funding; I think these are questions that a lot of people have, it’s buried in a book that’s almost 1,000 pages long.”

Rochester City School District Commissioner Beatriz LeBron

LeBron explained the budget process and RCSD Chief Financial Officer Robert Franklin introduced the budget book at the at the district’s first budget town hall meeting, held Feb. 20 at East High School.

The budget book is available at www.rcsdk12.org/Budget.

“Section three of the budget book [is] one of my favorites because it provides a complete overview of the school district’s budgeting; although it’s a relatively thin section, it really is chock full of information. You’ll see in there all of the district’s revenue sources and written explanations,” RCSD CFO Franklin said.

RCSD superintendent Terry Dade is scheduled to present the 2020-2021 proposed budget to the school board at 6 p.m. March 17 at 131 W. Broad St. The public is invited to attend that session. After that, RCSD will hold a second budget town hall meeting on at 6 p.m. March 25 at central office to give students, parents and community members the opportunity to ask questions, voice concerns and make suggestions.

LeBron addressed the difference between budget town hall meetings and budget hearings. “Budget hearings are specifically for the board to ask the administration questions. In the past the board has had hearings where people come in and speak for two minutes. I am not a fan of that process primarily because I feel like people have questions; they want to engage in conversation.”

Superintendent Terry Dade is trying to reverse a loss of students that contributed to the budget problems. File photo

Other organizations are trying to educate the community on the district’s budget process and the overall deficit, which could be $60 million for the 2020-21 academic year.

The Children’s Agenda and ROC the Future hosted a teach-in Feb. 13.

LeBron did not attend that event but said, “I appreciate the work that they do and I think the more opportunities for our community to have to learn about our budget and how and where funding is going, where it’s coming from, the better. I welcome everybody, but I do say that it is important for the district and the finance people within the district to be able to be a part of these conversations, not just the board, but they are the ones who put the budget together.”

Board president Van White also did not attend the Feb. 13 event but he was at the Feb. 20 meeting.

“I think insight is important into understanding how and why we make certain budget decisions,” he said. “Too often, people are in the dark and that’s not a good recipe for developing trust. I think if we do more of this, people will have a better understanding of what the district’s needs are and when they see that there’s an overage that there’s some context to that – students don’t succeed without there being some costs associated to taxpayers.”

White reiterated concerns about lack of appropriate government funding for the district, which he said is challenged by, among other things, student homelessness and having to serve students with high needs.

“These expenses, these challenges come at a cost,” White said. “So I think the more that people learn about our budget, the more they will become informed, not only about demanding more from RCSD, but demanding more from the city of Rochester, and demanding more from the state of New York, who 20 years ago the highest court in New York State said, ‘You’ve got to fund urban school districts more equitably, more fairly’. So I think this can only be helpful because it helps people put the requests and the challenges in their proper context.”

RCSD has posted audio and video of the Feb. 20 budget town hall meeting at www.rcsdk12.org/townhallbudget.