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What is the mayor's role in Rochester's public schools? 

December's turning out to be an unusually heavy news month, but one of the more interesting developments is Mayor Lovely Warren’s public input sessions on the Rochester school district. Warren has scheduled three of them: two especially for parents, at 6 p.m. December 13 and 17, and one for “community stakeholders,” at 3 p.m. December 17, all at City Hall.

The purpose, Warren said in an invitation sent to parents and community representatives, is “to discuss how you believe City Hall can help Rochester’s children succeed.” In her invitation, Warren noted that city government has already been partnering with the school district in pre-school education and in helping provide “wrap-around services” at School 17.

But Warren began her invitation by citing the recent report by the state-appointed Distinguished Educator, which criticized a lot of the district’s operations. Is Warren preparing to resurrect the idea of mayoral control of the district? Her chief of staff, Alex Yudelson, said late last week that he realizes some people will immediately jump to that conclusion. That’s not the intention, he said. Warren simply wants to hear the public’s concerns and ideas. But, he said, mayoral control “isn’t off the table.” Nothing, he said, is off the table.

Warren talked a lot about education when she first ran for mayor in 2013. And while she said then that she wasn't interested in mayoral control, she seemed to be considering having someone on her staff focus on education. So this isn’t a new interest. And it’s not inappropriate for a mayor to talk to the public about schools, and to ask for the public’s thoughts about them. In fact, mayors have good reasons to do exactly that. One of them is money.

The school district and city government are two distinctly separate entities, each with its own elected officials, administrative staff, numerous employees, and budget. But the school district doesn’t raise its own money. Some of its money comes from state and federal governments (which, of course, get that money from state and federal taxpayers). But some also comes from city government, which gets it from city taxpayers.

The school district submits its budget to City Council, which votes on it. But Council doesn’t make decisions about individual allocations in the budget; it simply votes on whether to approve the whole thing or not.

City government, then, has to raise money to help pay for the schools but has no say in what the district spends the money on. For decades, city officials have complained about the amount of money the city provides and about the school district’s operations. City officials also complain about something called the "Maintenance of Effort," a state mandate that requires the city to provide a specific amount of money to the school district each year, regardless of the city’s financial condition.

The school district is in deep trouble. Some of its problems are its own fault, but some aren't. Is there a better way to operate the school system in this high-poverty city?

When former Mayor Bob Duffy proposed mayoral control in 2010, it was highly controversial. Critics included not only the school board and the district's unions but many parents. That's not the only way city government can be involved in education, though, so Warren’s input sessions could provide an important service. What role should City Hall play in public education in Rochester?

Warren’s meetings could help the community find answers. I hope they won’t simply be finger-pointing gripe sessions.

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