June 09, 2004 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Caught in the middle 

The struggle in the city school district

The RochesterSchool District has cut teachers and other staff and is closing one school. And it still faces a budget shortfall of as much as $36 million, unless state aid closes that gap.

            With less than a month to go in this school year, district officials aren't sure they'll offer summer-school programs. The reason: outside financing hasn't been found for school nurses, and the district says it can't afford to fund them.

            The major parties involved in funding the Rochester district are at each others' throats. State leaders are now nearly three months late in adopting a state budget, on which the district depends heavily. For more than a year, state leaders have been under a court order to revise the state-aid formula, to increase funding to urban districts. Instead of acting, state leaders have resorted to name calling.

            And at the local level, city and school-district officials are every bit as angry at one another.

            At the center are the schools, and the students, of the state's most poverty-ridden school district. Rochester's student population has grown poorer --- and more heavily African American and Hispanic --- over the years. The district's test scores and graduation rates are much lower than in the surrounding suburbs. And despite years of reform efforts, school restructuring, and new teaching systems, the Rochester district, like urban districts throughout the country, has not been able to turn things around.

            The children who do well in Rochester schools --- and there are many --- tend to be those from more affluent, better-educated families.

            City officials and other district critics insist that the district can be successful, despite the poverty. District officials say the same thing. But there the agreement ends.

            A study of reports from the state Education Department and the Monroe County School Boards Association shows a growing disparity between the resources and programs of the city and many suburban school districts.

            For example, suburban teachers are paid more. In the widely publicized Rochester school reform of the late 1980s, teachers received a substantial salary increase --- though not as much as was generally perceived. Most suburban districts soon outpaced that, however.

            Suburban schools tend to have more experienced teachers, and more specialty resources such as music teachers and computers.

            District officials say they need more money. Critics, including Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, say the district could do a far better job with what it has, that it has enough money to do what it needs to do.

            "I don't consider this a poor district," says Johnson. He repeats a charge that he and other critics have made before: that the district deliberately makes its budget hard to analyze, and changes it every year, to hide waste and increasing costs.

            Johnson says he is particularly troubled that the school district's costs have increased while enrollment has declined.

            Johnson insists that the district could control its costs if it were willing to make tough decisions. For example, he says, the district had no business signing a contract that gives teachers a 4.4 percent raise in each of the next two years when the inflation rate is far lower.

            And Johnson and other critics charge that the district operates expensive programs and adds new ones and new staff without analyzing the results and eliminating obsolete programs.

            Patricia Malgieri, president and CEO of the Center for Governmental Research, says the school district seldom studies the effectiveness of its programs. At a recent hearing on the city's budget, Malgieri said the school district "must be forced into making tough decisions that it has somehow been unable to make" previously.

            School Board member Rob Brown says he has challenged critics to name the programs they say are wasteful and ineffective. The district does track the results from its programs, he says; the state reports on standardized-test scores of every school, every year.

Too often, Brown and others say, the district's critics want to use business criteria and accounting methods to measure schools, teachers, and children's performance. Education, they insist, has too many human factors to be judged that way.

            There are some parallels between business and education, however, and they increase the stress on the district. Both businesses and school districts have a variety of constituents, and the interests of some often conflict with the interests of others.

            Corporations must listen to the demands of stockholders, whose interests are higher profits and higher stock prices. But they must balance those demands with those of employees, whose interests are their own needs and those of their families: good salaries, good working conditions, good benefits. And employees with strong unions make sure those needs are voiced.

            The school district's constituents include taxpayers. And they include teachers, who, like the employees of a business, are concerned with wages and benefits. In addition --- significantly --- Rochester teachers are members of one of the state's most powerful unions . And that union is a crucial district ally in lobbying for state aid.

            The constituents of a business include its customers, who must be satisfied, or they'll buy from a competitor. And the school district must satisfy students and parents.

            Because of declining enrollment, the school district will be under intense pressure to close schools over the next several years. It is closing Josh Lofton high school this year. Superintendent Manuel Rivera had also planned to close School 36, but he bowed to the pleas of parents and staff and gave it a reprieve. He made it clear, however, that he plans to close more schools, soon.

            When he proposes those closings, there will be more protests from more parents and staff. It will be surprising if Rivera does not consider closing one or more of the elementary schools in the city's more affluent areas: small schools with disproportionately fewer students from their immediate neighborhoods. And there, the district will face a particularly troublesome dilemma: parents in those schools tend to be well organized and active. And some of them can afford to send their children to private schools --- or move to the suburbs.

            Neither would be in the interests of the school district, or City Hall.

Voting on the budget

The Rochester school district, which receives a substantial amount of funding from the city, must have its budget approved by City Council. Council will vote on the proposed budget on Tuesday, June 22, and will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 16. The hearing will be in Council Chambers, third floor, City Hall.

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Speaking of Rochester School District, City School District

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