State education chief puts the RCSD on notice

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The state Department of Education plans regular visits to scrutinize the Rochester City School District’s progress in meeting financial and parent engagement goals laid out last year by Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino. The state will continue, for the time being, to work with the city’s Board of Education, amid calls for a state takeover of the school district. 

Citing sections of Aquino’s November 2018 report on the RCSD relating to those areas, Interim Commissioner of Education Beth Berlin in a Nov. 14 letter  put Board of Education President Van White on notice, indicating that the education department sees the district as needing to do more work to bring itself in line with the distinguished educator’s recommendations.

In addition to the staff visits, the department will monitor the district’s implementation of its action plan by, among other steps, requiring that the RCSD submit quarterly progress reports that will be posted publicly. The first of these reports is due on Nov. 30.

White did not respond to a request for comment.

Aquino’s 62-page report was highly critical of the RCSD administration and called the school board to task for inappropriately micromanaging the administration. The report laid out more than 80 detailed recommendations.

Recent revelations concerning RCSD finances have called the Aquino report into renewed focus.

“Given the recent news concerning the district’s fiscal situation, the department has provided additional feedback for each of the distinguished educator’s recommendations in the finances section,” Berlin wrote, referring to a financial addendum and a fiscal corrective action plan.

“There are sections of the parent engagement plan in which the feedback was not fully addressed, and the revisions do not fully embrace the guidance provided.”

In February, former Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia rejected the RCSD’s initial response to the Aquino report. In August, she accepted a second set of revisions as more on track but still needing further work.

The district’s already worrisome finances this fall were revealed to be more troubled than previously thought when district officials disclosed a hole in the city schools’ fiscal 2019 budget. The shortfall—initially thought to be as much as $50 million—is in the $30 million range, Superintendent of Schools Terry Dade said in September.

Barbara Deane-Williams, the superintendent on the job when Aquino penned the 2018 report, left the position on Jan. 31, 2019. Dade was named superintendent in May and assumed his duties on July 1, taking over from interim superintendent Dan Lowengard.

According to school board members, Elia last year hinted that failure to fix the ills Aquino detailed could result in a state takeover of Rochester’s public school system. 

Earlier this year, a draft plan calling for a state takeover of the district from Board of Regents Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown, a Rochester-based attorney, was passed to Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren. Subsequently, Warren backed a referendum calling for the city school board to be sidelined for five years and a state-appointed board put in its place.

Aquino and Elia subsequently resigned, and before it could be put on the November ballot, the referendum was scotched by a court order.  

Berlin’s closing words in the Nov. 14 order would seem to at least temporarily set aside the question of a state takeover.

“We appreciate RCSD’s efforts to fully address the Department’s previous feedback in developing a cohesive plan to support the students of Rochester,” she wrote. “We look forward to a continued partnership with the district in the upcoming school year and to supporting the district’s efforts to implement the action plan and ultimately improve educational outcomes for students in the Rochester City School District.”

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

One thought on “State education chief puts the RCSD on notice

  1. Thanks for this important RCSD update.

    My own take the the District’s problems is that there is no focus on TEACHING and LEARNING improvement basics. I see it as common sense, that the focus should be on the actually process of education, more than on budget matters.

    Unfortunately, Rochester School officials focus in administrative details, and budgets, while students suffer and fail.

    Fortunately, there are many tools available to improve the actual dynamics of education. We have computers and the internet, available as teaching tools, available to everyone, at little or no cost, around the clock.

    Compare how we follow Rochester Schools, with how we follow the Buffalo Bills football team. When the Bills play, fans follow the game, play by play. They are concerned with the dynamics of the game, not the budget of the team. Why can’t we do the same with our schools?

    Why can’t the Rochester City School District listen to the concerns and advice of people in the community, for advice? The Bills listen to the fans, all the time!

    Thanks Harry S. Pearle, Ph.D. Consultant

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