Monday, June 16, 2014

[UPDATED] Warren to legislators: Don't approve funds for second phase of schools modernization

Posted By on Mon, Jun 16, 2014 at 12:04 PM

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren and City Council President Loretta Scott sent a letter to the State Legislature today, slamming the first phase of the $1.2 billion modernization project in the Rochester school district. And they say they are opposed to the Assembly bill seeking $435 million to begin the project's second phase. 

The letter says that there are serious concerns about broken timetables, the handling of funds, and other aspects of the project's first phase. And Warren and Scott say that their recommendations for changes to the draft bill for the second phase were ignored. "Instead, the bill was filed without her [Warren's] knowledge," the letter says. 

The letter also says that the bill should prohibit former members of the Rochester Joint Schools Construction Board, the organization charged with oversight of the project, from assuming the role of executive director and advisory staff for at least two years after they resign or are replaced.  And the bill should prohibit money from the second phase of the project being used for cost overruns on the first phase, the letter says. 

Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle's letter responding to Warren and Scott is attached at the bottom of this post.

The schools construction project, considered the largest in the city's history, has been fraught with delays from its inception, much of it occurring during multiple changes of superintendents and mayors. Last month, Warren confirmed that the FBI is investigating some of aspects of the first phase of the project, and that she has reservations about moving forward.

Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas and the Rochester school board have urged that funding for the second phase of the project move forward; stating that delays would cause serious problems. But State Assembly member David Gantt has stated that he will not support the bill while the FBI investigation is under way. Gantt led passage of the bill through the Legislature for the first phase of the project.

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Week Ahead: Disability advocates protest; open forums with Vargas and the school board; lake levels plan due

Posted By on Mon, Jun 16, 2014 at 10:24 AM

Joe Robach. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Joe Robach.
Disability rights advocates from Rochester will hold a vigil and press conference at Senator Joe Robach’s office, 2300 W. Ridge Road, from noon to 5 p.m. on Monday, June 16, over the Nurse Practice Act. The press conference is at 1 p.m.

Advocates want state lawmakers to amend the act to implement the Community First Choice Option. They say the change would ensure that any senior or person with a disability who is eligible for institutional placement would have the option to receive services and supports in the community.

But political feuding between the governor and the Senate is preventing action on this matter, advocates say. BY CHRISTINE CARRIE FIEN


The public has an opportunity to speak with city schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas at an open forum at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, June 17.

Many participants say they value the opportunity to have a direct conversation with the superintendent. The meeting will be held at the district’s central office, 131 West Broad Street.

City school board commissioners have followed Vargas’s lead and will hold their own open forum at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 19. The meeting will also be held at the district’s central office, and it will be followed by the board’s monthly business meeting at 6:30 p.m.

Expect a large number of teachers at this month’s board meeting. The Rochester Teachers Association recently filed a grievance against the district over problems involving testing. BY TIM LOUIS MACALUSO


The International Joint Commission, the bi-national organization that oversees water bodies shared between the US and Canada, will submit its Lake Ontario levels plan to both federal governments.

At 11 a.m. on Tuesday, the commission will publicly release the Plan 2014 report. It’ll also hold a webinar for reporters.

Last summer, the IJC collected public comments on the plan. The report it’s submitting to the governments takes those comments into consideration, says IJC spokesperson Frank Bevacqua. The governments will respond to the report, he says.

The IJC proposed Plan 2014 in June of last year. It’s based on a previous proposal, Bv7, which aimed to restore some natural variability to lake levels. Environmental groups say the approach will help restore damaged coastal wetlands, which provide habitat, improve water quality, and help reduce shoreline erosion.

Lake levels are regulated through the Moses-Saunders hydropower dam in the St. Lawrence River and Plan 2014 added in “trigger points” for action during extreme high or low water levels. During periods of extreme high levels, the dam operator would be able to let more water out of the lake and into the St. Lawrence Seaway. During low levels, the operator would be able to let more water into the lake.

Shoreline property owners and the elected officials who represent them have opposed Plan 2014 and the proposals preceding it. They say that the proposed changes would result in more property damage and that they wouldn’t be adequately compensated for those damages. BY JEREMY MOULE 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Hunger risk rises in Rochester area

Posted By on Thu, Jun 12, 2014 at 12:10 PM

Nearly 13 percent of Monroe County residents are at risk of going hungry, according to a recent report from Feeding America, a national food bank network and advocacy organization.

Rochester’s Foodlink, which is part of Feeding America’s food bank network, distributed some local figures from the national organization’s Map the Meal Gap report yesterday. Across the 10 counties that Foodlink serves, 12 percent of the population is “food insecure,” says the study. In other words, about 150,680 people across the region have limited or uncertain access to adequate food, says a press release from Foodlink. That’s an increase of 15,170 compared to last year, Foodlink says.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

California decision a game-changer

Posted By on Wed, Jun 11, 2014 at 11:19 AM

No matter how you look at it, yesterday’s decision by a California Superior Court Judge was a serious blow to teachers, their unions, and their anti-reform allies. In Vergara v. State of California, Justice Rolf Treu ruled in favor of nine parents, saying that the current set of laws that protect teachers discriminates against low-income and minority students. 
FILE PHOTO.
  • FILE PHOTO.

The ruling called some of the main tenants of teacher contracts unconstitutional. Nearly automatic tenure, seniority, and multiple appeals before a teacher can be fired have allowed ineffective teachers to remain in the system to the detriment of the students, the judge said.

While the decision wasn’t good for California’s teachers, what does it mean for teachers and their unions in the rest of the country? What will the decision mean for students?

The California ruling was immediately applauded by US Education Secretary Arne Duncan and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. The latter is widely viewed as a likely Republican candidate for president in 2016, and he’s a huge supporter of charter schools.

As expected, teachers unions have vowed to appeal the judge’s decision. But some introspective on the part of union leaders would be well-served. For more than a decade, the public has heard of case after case where ineffective teachers languish in mostly urban school districts. In California, supporters of the ruling argued that litigation had to be used to correct that refused to correct itself.

But teachers groups argue that they are overwhelmed by the social ills impacting poor and minority students and their families. Teachers, they say, are being unfairly blamed for decades of bad public policies that have left many of the country’s urban school districts highly segregated and underfunded.

The California ruling, should it stand, will give school administrators the ability to hire and retain whom they believe are the best teachers. It could also be a boost for charter school and pro-school choice advocates, by validating the staffing approach they’ve already been using.

But it will likely be another decade before we know what’s best for students. And it will be interesting to see what has happened to the profession and the country’s once revered traditional public schools.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

RTA ticked over testing

Posted By on Tue, Jun 10, 2014 at 11:02 AM

Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski rarely admonishes Superintendent Bolgen Vargas publicly. Vargas and Urbanski usually have each other’s back on most issues.

But the RTA filed a class action grievance against the city school district last week, and in a phone interview yesterday, Urbanski was not so supportive of Vargas. The grievance concerns ELA and math tests that teachers have been administering this month, particularly in grades K to 2. Urbanski says the district has broken its agreement with the union regarding how the tests are administered.
RTA President Adam Urbanski - FILE PHOTO.
  • FILE PHOTO.
  • RTA President Adam Urbanski

Urbanski, who has been an outspoken critic of what he calls the state’s testing mania, says the tests have to be given to students individually because they are performance-based assessments.

“This is a woeful waste of time,” says Urbanski. And classroom management has been made more difficult, he says. Teachers in the lower grades don’t even have a proctor assisting them.

Also, Urbanski says the tests were riddled with errors, and administering them has taken more time than teachers are paid to work.

Urbanski says that the problems were brought to Vargas’s attention with some recommended solutions.

“I surmise that Bolgen admits that the district messed up,” says Urbanski. But Urbanski says that Vargas’s administrators are blaming teachers for the problems with the testing.

School officials seemed caught off guard by the grievance. "Our students in kindergarten, first and second grade are taking new performance-based assessments this month," district spokesperson Chip Partner said in a written statement. "The new tests were negotiated with the Rochester Teachers Association as part of an agreement to eliminate thousands of pre-and-post assessments taken previously by students at all levels to support the [teacher] performance review process."

The tension comes at a time when the University of Rochester is developing a plan to turn around East High School. Solid support from the unions has been widely viewed as critically important to the success of any plan that the UR tries to implement.

The grievance will now go before an arbitrator, and the arbitrator’s decision will stand, says an RTA official.

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Monday, June 9, 2014

WEEK AHEAD: City and school budget discussions; a Great Lakes Initiative webinar; a conversation with Vargas

Posted By on Mon, Jun 9, 2014 at 10:59 AM

Rochester City Council members will continue their review of Mayor Lovely Warren’s 2014-2015 proposed budget.

Warren has proposed a $500 million plan that would increase spending by 3.6 percent and includes $5.8 million from increases in taxes and fees. Warren closed a $38 million budget gap by reducing capital expenses and netting a $6 million one-time increase in state aid.

The review begins at 9:35 a.m. on Tuesday, June 10, and lasts all day. Each city department is given time to appear before Council for questioning on its individual budget.

The breakdown for the meeting:
  • 9:35 a.m.: information technology;
  • 10:40 a.m.: emergency communications; 
  • 11:20 a.m.: fire department; 
  • 1:15 p.m.: police department;
  • 2:45 p.m.: Neighborhood and Business Development;
  • 3:35 p.m.: Department of Environmental Services. 
The meeting is in Council chambers at City Hall, 30 Church Street. Council meetings are webcast at www.cityofrochester.gov/councilwebcast. BY CHRISTINE CARRIE FIEN


City Council will hold a public hearing on the Rochester school district’s budget for the 2014-2015 school year on Wednesday, June 11.

This is the second round of hearings for the $782 million budget; the school board and Superintendent Bolgen Vargas have already held several public meetings on it, and board members approved it last month. The budget now goes before City Council. Board members and City Council members will listen to comments at this meeting, but City Council will not vote on the budget until later this month. The meeting will be held in Council Chambers at City Hall, 30 Church Street, at 5:30 p.m. BY TIM LOUIS MACALUSO


A federal Great Lakes task force has released a draft plan for how it’ll approach the next four years of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Today and Tuesday, the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force will hold public webinars on the preliminary plan.

The webinar today starts at 2 p.m. and can be accessed at https://www1.gotomeeting.com/register/789861232. Tuesday’s webinar starts at 11 a.m. and can be accessed at https://www1.gotomeeting.com/register/841679520.

Under the GLRI, federal agencies provide funding for projects to improve the Great Lakes’ health. Projects throughout the first four years focused on cleaning up toxic pollution, preventing the introduction or spread of invasive species, reducing pollution from storm water runoff, and restoring coastal wetlands and habit.

Those types of projects will continue over the next four years under the draft plan. But the federal agencies will also prioritize projects that have the largest impact on persistent problems in the Great Lakes. And they’ll consider projects’ ability to withstand or mitigate the effects of climate change. BY JEREMY MOULE


The public will again have a chance to talk with Superintendent Bolgen Vargas when he holds his next Coffee and Conversations meeting, Thursday, June 12. The meetings are designed to let parents, students, and other residents bring their concerns directly to the superintendent. This week’s meeting will be held at the district’s central office, 131 West Broad Street, at 7 a.m. BY TIM LOUIS MACALUSO

Friday, June 6, 2014

Feds taking comments on Great Lakes plan

Posted By on Fri, Jun 6, 2014 at 11:41 AM

On September 30, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative will have completed its first four years. And the federal task force that oversees the effort to improve the health of the Great Lakes has released its draft action plan for fiscal years 2015 through 2019. The group is accepting public comments on the draft plan in advance of the release of the final plan by October 1.

Comments should be submitted by June 30 to http://glri.us/public.html or e-mailed to actionplan@glnpo.net.

The Great Lakes Interagency Task Force will hold two public webinars on the preliminary plan. The first is at 2 p.m. on Monday, June 9, and can be accessed at  https://www1.gotomeeting.com/register/789861232. The second is at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, June 10, at https://www1.gotomeeting.com/register/841679520.

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Thursday, June 5, 2014

DOE notes high pre-k suspensions

Posted By on Thu, Jun 5, 2014 at 10:59 AM

This is a corrected version of this blog; June 6, 2014 at 12:20 p.m.

The Rochester school district has been re-evaluating its approach to suspensions and working on a new code of conduct policy.

Thousands of city students are suspended yearly and there is a tendency to think that they are mostly older students. The Rochester City School District does not suspend pre-k students, according to a district spokesperson, but that is not the case elsewhere. 

A brief article in the June issue of American School Board Journal says that nearly 5,000 pre-k students in the US were suspended during the 2011-2012 school year. The data comes from a report issued by the US Department of Education. Generally these students are 3, 4, and 5 years old. 

Similar to national data on suspensions, black children are disproportionately represented, even though they comprise about 18 percent of students enrolled pre-k programs. Most of the suspensions, according to the DOE, are the result of zero tolerance standards in public schools.

The irony is that pre k and preschool programs are intended to give students a head start. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Tech firm coming to former Rochester Savings Bank

Posted By on Wed, Jun 4, 2014 at 1:23 PM

A data backup and recovery firm founded by a Rochester Institute of Technology alum will be the first business to come to Rochester under the state's START-UP NY program. Governor Andrew Cuomo made the announcement at a press conference held at RIT this morning. 

The company is Datto, a Connecticut-based firm founded by RIT grad Austin McChord in 2007. Datto will open a new office in the former Rochester Savings Bank building on Franklin Street, which is owned by RIT. The company plans to hire 77 people for engineering, development, and technical support positions. It currently employs 30 RIT grads, said Paul Sagan, chair of the company's board, during today's event.

"And we only want one thing: we want more of them," Sagan told an audience gathered at RIT's Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction, and Creativity. As a tech company, Datto's top consideration for a new site is the available talent pool, Sagan told reporters after the event.

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Parker expects Duffy to apply for RBA leadership

Posted By on Wed, Jun 4, 2014 at 12:28 PM

Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy.
This is a corrected version of this blog; Monday, June 9,2014

Sandy Parker, president and CEO of the Rochester Business Alliance, says she expects Bob Duffy to reapply for her job. Parker retires at the end of the year and Duffy, currently New York's lieutenant governor, isn't running on Governor Cuomo's re-election ticket this fall. 

"I would be very surprised if he doesn't throw his hat in the ring," Parker said during an interview today. "He's going to be finished with his responsibilities at the end of the year. Do I think he would be a good candidate for the job? Absolutely. But I'm not part of the selection process." 

Duffy interviewed for the RBA job last year, but withdrew from consideration when the news went public. It has been widely speculated that he'd reapply, given Parker's impending departure. Parker even delayed her retirement a year, though she's never said she did it to give Duffy a chance to finish out his term as lieutenant governor. 

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