The Rochester school board is scheduled to vote Feb. 27 on a proposal to close Schools 44 and 57 from their current use and turn them into pre-kindergarten centers.
The meeting is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m.
Superintendent Terry Dade introduced the idea in late January as the Rochester City School District’s budget crisis was getting worse. In early February, he announced that the district could have a $60 million gap for the 2020-21 school year. The district already is under the weight of multimillion dollar deficits from the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 academic years.
Dade wants to bring 500 seats for pre-K pupils back into the district. Currently, the district serves 39% of pre-K children and Community Based Organizations (CBOs) serve 61%. In actual numbers, the district serves 1,266 children and the CBOs serve 1,927.
Dade is proposing that the district serve 55% and CBOs serve 45% of the children.
From the district’s standpoint, the move is a strategic plan to address declining enrollment and help the district’s long-term fiscal stability. Dade has said that students who start pre-K in the district are twice as likely to stay.
The proposal would affect families who seek pre-K services from CBOs – and it would affect some of those organizations.
“The issues for parents are different from the issues that affect organizations,” said Jerome Underwood, president and chief executive officer of Action for a Better Community, one of the largest CBOs in the area providing pre-K.
For some parents, the question is where their 3- and 4-year-olds would go to school. For CBOs, the issue is whether they would lose seats and if they lost too many, what would happen to their programs.
Underwood said CBOs want the school board to consider the proposal in two parts. One vote would be whether to close Schools 44 and 57. Then, after more discussion between the district and the CBOs, the board could vote on the pre-K proposal.
However, the district said that the state Education Department has a March 1 deadline for board-approved changes to any schools for the following year. It includes new schools, closing schools and/or changes to grade-level configuration within schools.
He said CBOs would deliver 800 petitions from families to the school board. Since the announcement of the plan, about two dozen people have addressed it during public comment sessions at four board meetings, according to meeting agendas posted at the district website. Lehner said the district expects parents and representatives from CBOs to sign up to speak at the meeting.
Basics of the district-CBO relationship
Annmarie Lehner, chief of staff to Dade, said the plan is to balance the distribution of pre-K seats. “We’re not intentionally doing this to take money away from CBOs.”
The district began partnering with CBOs in the late 1990s, when the federal and state governments pushed for early childhood education. Under grant programs, CBOs were to have 10% of seats. She said that RCSD was not able to accommodate all students, so that percentage grew.
However, the district has been losing 600 to 700 students a year and has not closed enough schools to make up for the decline. Lehner said the plan to close Schools 44 and 57 is to save money, which the district put at $4.1 million. She said expanding the number of pre-K seats in the district is to reverse the enrollment trend.
The district has 30 pre-K sites and CBOs have more than two dozen. The district sends each CBO $9,000 per full-day seat. It sends $4,500 for a half-day seat, and the CBO gets the rest from other grants.
Not every CBO is renewed each school year. The district evaluates each program based on a review of violations from the state Office of Child and Family Services, Education Department health and safety checklist, teacher certification and impact in zones of the city.
Key issues from CBO point of view
Underwood spoke primarily for ABC, but he offered a perspective on the general concerns of the CBOs that may be affected. He listed four main points:
- Relationship with the district. He said the CBOs are partners with the district. “We ought to sit down together to devise a solution.” He said CBOs don’t agree with the district that bringing more students into pre-K will reverse the trend of declining enrollment. “Why are parents choosing charter schools over the district? There’s a perception that the quality is better.” He also said the district should make time to talk to parents who stand to be affected by the change.
- Future of some CBOs. “We think this destabilizes the CBO early childhood community, of which RCSD is a part of.”
- Transportation. Underwood said that ABC provides door-to-door transportation According to Dade at a Feb. 7 news conference; the district would provide bus passes for the child and parent.
- Wrap-around services. Some CBOs provide daycare before and after the school day. The district has said it will offer up to three hours of enrichment programs in science, technology, engineering, arts and music once the school day ends.
Underwood said CBOs are questioning the actual cost savings projected by the district, considering that it may have higher expenses from educating the additional students.