We’ve all seen this movie before – and we lived it.
Here is how the movie plays out. The Rochester City School District’s Board of Education hires a dynamic school superintendent. He or she arrives with idealism and promise. Within a year or so they are fighting with the school board—and asking to get out of this city and their contract.
Why does this happen? The board refuses to work with the superintendent and insists on micromanaging to protect their own interests. When we worked for former superintendent Bolgen Vargas, every budget season we asked to work collaboratively with the board and every season we were turned down. But how does a superintendent do their job or put forth a meaningful budget when each board member is more interested in pandering to the community and protecting their sacred cows? We lived it constantly.
At the budget public hearings, board members would refuse to vote for necessary spending cuts and necessary school closures. Individual board members would insist on funding programs led by their friends that were not deserving of public funding. During our four years, various board members insisted we pay North East Area Development Association, whose executive director has been indicted recently for questionable financial practices, $300,000 for unspecified services; Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority for millions of dollars in excess of substantiated levels of student ridership; and other programs with only vague outcomes.
In each of the above situations and others, the board member had alliances and allegiances to community members that failed to justify the requested expenditures. They weren’t troubled by revenue realities created by decisions like keeping all school buildings open, even though enrollment kept dropping every year. Consider that in the past 10 years the district has lost more than 7,000 students, a population larger than that of several districts combined in the county, but few buildings have been closed.
How can our school board members approve the finance chicanery of last year and still have jobs—when the budget must be cut? It’s easy. Our school board has set itself up as employees of the district working half time in order to qualify for lifetime health care benefits and retirement benefits. The RCSD board is the only school board in New York that is treated in this fashion. In other districts, school board members are either volunteers or board members who receive only a token honorarium. No health care benefits are tendered unless the board member pays for it.
What do we then get for our largesse? A board that is more interested in keeping their “jobs” than helping the kids; a board that is more interested in helping their friends than helping the kids. Many kids in the district, perennially amongst the five poorest in the country, look to the city schools as their only chance to escape poverty.
After years of mind-numbing audit findings, enough is enough. For too long, Rochester school boards have hidden behind the dual excuses of too little state aid and too high poverty. No more excuses. New York must replace this board with a governance structure driven only by the best interest of our kids. Start by considering Yonkers’ results. This city has an appointed, unpaid school board and a student population similar to Rochester’s. But with a budget of $663 million—approximately two-thirds the size of Rochester’s nearly $1 billion budget—the on-time graduation rate is 86 percent, rather than Rochester’s 54 percent.
Patty Malgieri was the chief of staff at the Rochester City School District under former Superintendent Bolgen Vargas and formerly Rochester’s deputy mayor. She also served as manager of administration in the Yonkers Public Schools. Edwin J. Lopez-Soto was general counsel during Vargas’ tenure as superintendent and currently is a faculty member at the Cornell Industrial Labor Relations school.