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Lesson plan 

Next time a city school closes, critics will be harder pressed to cry foul. At least that's what RochesterCitySchool District officials are hoping. In an effort to diminish the affect of politics on school operation --- especially as the school closing process gets underway --- district officials are cooking up a strategic plan. Or, to be more precise, they're putting together a task force to come up with that plan.

            Since the advisory group is still being formed, officials won't comment on who's been asked to participate, but groups (including businesses, non-profit organizations, and neighborhood associations) from each of the Rochester's three "Schools of Choice" zones will be approached, as well as parents from around the city.

            Once it's formed, the task force will try to complete a strategic plan --- one that considers the district's buildings, academic programs, and enrollment trends --- by the fall. "We're not just talking about closing schools; we're talking about a comprehensive plan for the district," says Jana Carlisle, the district's chief planning officer.

            In a June interview with City Newspaper, RCSD Superintendent Manuel Rivera said recommendations for school closings would be presented to the board by November or December, but there's a new reason now for the task force to meet that deadline: the potential for $500 million or more in state aid to fund an 18- to 24-month comprehensive building renovation program. The deadline to apply for that money is December, Carlisle says.

            At an August 5 meeting of the School Board's Community and Intergovernmental Relations Committee, officials expressed hope that having a strategic plan will help mitigate the damage of this year's round of school closings. "If we plan on what our school district is going to look like five years from today, the parents will understand," said School Board member Domingo Garcia. Others agreed, but cautioned that the process must be thorough. "I do not want to be in a situation where we come out with a recommendation and then flip-flop later. That's not going to happen," Rivera said.

            Flip-flop or not, the board knows that any school closure recommendation will draw criticism. Board Member Rob Brown wanted the planning process to reflect the distinction between closing a particular building and ending an ineffective academic program. "'Closing the school,' there's really no content to those words, they're just inflammatory," he says. "You can't use the same word to describe two different things and that's what we've been doing."

            That's all the more reason to think strategically, rather than reacting to yearly budget constraints, Carlisle says. "Having a long-term plan as to which buildings we may want to vacate and what programs we want to keep needs to be separate from the budget," she says. "When things become part of the budget, they become politicized and can't be viewed strategically. We shouldn't be looking at things tactically every year; we want to step back and have a strategic discussion."

            The Rochester community will be a part of that discussion, she says. "We've talked about having the community bring input; we've talked about having a discussion with parents, non-profits, neighborhood associations. When you don't do that is when you lose the support of people," Carlisle says. "If we don't come back to the community regularly we lose the public's trust. We really do want to seek the input of the people and incorporate it."

            But most of the school closing criteria are already in place, with the district taking its cue from other urban districts around the nation. "We would be remiss in not looking at places like Baltimore, like Minneapolis, like Buffalo --- how they handle things like this."

            Input from the community will mainly be used to tailor the strategic plan to Rochester's specific needs. "We want to do what's best for the community overall from an educational and economic perspective," says Carlisle.

            One way the district may evaluate that could be to split up the input it receives. "It may not end up being one task force," says Carlisle, but two advisory groups. If that were to happen, she says, one would likely tackle issues of economic development and building modernization, as well as the district's debt ceiling. The other would have "more of a community focus."

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