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RCSD officials wrestle with budget priorities 

Preparing the budget for the coming year has always been a mammoth undertaking for the Rochester City School District, but this year it's particularly challenging. Most school budgets are designed to implement policies, support strategic goals, and address problems. But in the city school district's case, there are far more problems to fix than there are dollars in the proposed $924.5 million budget.

The budget is being developed at a time when the district is under intense scrutiny from the State Education Department and local leaders. Problems in its special education programs have been widely criticized. And the district has been drawing down its reserves, trying to address some of its most serious challenges. Now the district has to find a way to make cuts in programs to reduce its $85 million debt at a time when the SED and others are saying the district is in crisis.

Making matters worse, the school board is looking for a new superintendent and, depending on the results of the upcoming election, that person could be reporting to board with a new majority. And neither the superintendent nor potential new board members will have had any say in the budget they'll be charged with implementing.

The Children's Agenda, a non-profit children's advocacy group, acknowledged last week in its annual budget analysis that the district has made discernable progress in some key areas, despite all of its problems. Suspensions have been significantly reduced, the report said; graduation rates are heading upward, some of the district's lowest performing schools are doing better, school climate is improving, and the district is finally focused on improving special education.

But the Children's Agenda questions whether the board and administration can prevent that progress from being derailed by budget constraints. A major area of concern: the district's efforts to improve special education. The proposed budget calls for greatly reducing the number of coordinators of special education services, called CASEs, and replacing them with a team of principals, vice principals, and central office administrators. The goal is to provide the team with more professional development related to special ed services. The administrators need to be able to address the needs of the students in their schools, says board member Willa Powell.

Interim Superintendent Daniel Lowengard presented district officials with a budget that was clearly meant to send a message: the district can't continue to spend more money than it gets in revenue. Lowengard proposed cutting more than 326 positions, many of them teachers.

There are no plans to lay off teachers, thanks to an early-retirement program that both the board and the teachers union are embracing, since the program controls spending while retaining younger teachers – many of whom are people of color.

Lowengard also proposed cutting 10 restorative justice instructors. But the board will likely restore the instructors to ensure that school climate improvements continue, Powell says.

There is still some disagreement among board members over the budget. Some want to restore as much spending as possible, while others think Lowengard's message about austerity is not being taken seriously. Getting the district's finances under control will require several years of budget cuts, says board member Beatriz LeBron. And the cuts could worsen each year, she says.

Powell says she's concerned about the budget, but some of the district's budget problems have to do with management.

"Poor implementation – that's criticism we deserve," Powell says, "and it's criticism I share." It's one reason why the board is focused on searching for a superintendent with a track record of turning around large districts both academically and financially, she says. It's not the only criteria for a new superintendent, but it's at the top of the list, she says.

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