At a poorly attended public hearing Monday, the Rochester City School District’s state-appointed monitor painted a picture of a system in dire need of academic improvement while facing a likelihood of increasing financial pain.
Named by the state Department of Education last May to oversee and help the long-ailing RCSD develop budget and academic improvement plans, Shelley Jallow serves as an RCSD Board of Education non-voting member.
Her charge called for five-year plans this month. In earlier sessions, the school board provisionally approved both plans. They were slated to become formally adopted at the close of business yesterday.
In the academic plan, Jallow outlines conclusions she has drawn based on her work with the RCSD so far. The broad aims she believes the district needs to achieve to make the plans work include:
■ making a long-term commitment to focusing resources on the acceleration of student achievement;
■ redirection of resources away from programs, practices, and partners that have been unable to demonstrate evidence of producing positive outcomes in the areas of teaching and learning;
■ collecting and examining accurate, reliable data to measure teaching and learning in every classroom;
■ providing equitable resources to keep students engaged in a lifelong learning cycle; and
■ expanding the definition of district success beyond graduation rates to incorporate college, career, and civic readiness.
To help ensure those aims are achieved, the plan calls for central office executives to receive training in project management, customer service, personnel management, and disciplines called implementation science and improvement science.
The district went into its current budget year facing a $70 million shortfall that was only partly offset by a $35 million infusion of state cash. With the state facing its own budget woes during an ongoing pandemic in which revenues have fallen while expenses mounted, Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this year projected as much as a 20 percent cut in school funding.
In her presentation this week, Jallow outlined three scenarios for RCSD’s immediate and longer-term budgets. Her worst case assumed a 10 percent cut in the district’s state funding. The best case assumed no state-aid cut. A middle projection assumed a 5 percent reduction in state aid. Her budget projections are guesses that could be thrown off by unforeseen developments, Jallow cautions. Still, none are encouraging,
Her best case would see the district finish its current fiscal year next June with a $45 million deficit that would be offset by a reserve fund that would leave a nearly $35 million surplus. A 5 percent state aid cut would leave the district with $6.7 million surplus. A 10 percent reduction in state aid would see the RCSD end the fiscal year with $21.3 million in red ink.
“We’re hoping that it doesn’t go to 10 percent and we certainly are hopeful that it doesn’t go to 20 percent,” Jallow said Monday.
Future years in any of Jallow’s budget scenarios look grim. Even in the zero aid-cut projection, Jallow estimates that the district would be looking at $396 million in red ink at the end of its 2026 fiscal year. In the monitor’s worst-case scenario, the district would face a more than $700 million shortfall in five years.
Citing projections of falling district enrollment, the monitor’s five-year budget improvement plan includes a recommendation calling for RCSD to consider school closings, staff reductions of an unspecified scope, renegotiating contracts for transportation services and upping employees’ health plan contributions. Revenue-boosting strategies it suggests include applying for grants and sharing space with charter schools.
The financial plan cites a number of expense-tightening steps like improving efficiency of purchasing software, better oversight of contracts with service and goods providers, and tightening oversight of payments to providers of services to students with disabilities. There is no estimate of how much might be saved by such measures.
Only two individuals spoke at the virtual hearing. Six had signed up. Both of the speakers identified themselves as RCSD teachers and city residents who are parents of school-age children.
Claire Labrosa, who teaches English as a second language, cited comments she said she had heard Jallow make in media interviews suggesting that district class sizes could be increased. Labrosa said in her experience most classes already are at maximum levels. If they are not, students moving between charter schools and RCSD schools or between RCSD buildings accounted for the shortfall, she said.
“I’m not sure there is a single piece of credible education research that shows larger class sizes increase student achievement,” she said. “What the research does show is that smaller classes lead to better results, especially for those who need help the most.
“Class-size reduction has been shown to lead to higher test scores, better grades, more engaged students, fewer disciplinary referrals and less teacher turnover. Children assigned to smaller classes (have) less teacher turnover. Children who attend smaller classes are more likely to graduate from high school on time, attend college and get a STEM degree. Smaller classes will also likely lead to substantial cost savings by lowering special education referrals, boosting four-year graduation rates, reducing the need for less effective and often more expensive intervention services.”
Paul Conrow, who teaches precision optics at East High School and has four children who attend city schools, urged the district to cut transportation costs and apply the savings to art and music programs. The district has spent $600 million on transportation over the past 10 years, he noted.
“Yes, there is a need for busing,” Conrow said. “But let’s imagine if just one tenth of that allocation or $60 million had been shifted over the last 10 years. With less busing, we might have had significantly more academics and arts that all families and students wish were available. With a portion of that $60 million, there could have been a well-funded theater arts program and instruments for an orchestra at every high school.”
The school-choice policy “sets up academic winners and losers,” Conrow maintained. “The winners are the schools that are perceived as better performing. Families with the greatest agency from across the city all select the same narrow list of schools that are perceived well. If a student gets into these schools, they win. Those buildings win because their population has a higher percentage of students with outside support systems.
“The RCSD buses the lottery winners to the schools perceived as good, and equitably, the RCSD buses the losers across the district to the schools with less-popular reputations. Please create great and equitable programs across the district. Use dollars saved in transportation costs to fund academics and arts at every high school. Create the reality that every high school in every neighborhood has world-class arts and academics. As more families perceive that RCSD schools are offering more, more families will select these schools instead of going urban/suburban, charter, private or moving out of the district.”
RCSD’s longstanding school-choice program, which allows students to attend schools outside of their own neighborhood, could be an unintended driver of high transportation costs, the monitor’s financial plan states. It does not estimate savings that might be achieved by modifying or ending the program.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.