The Rochester City School District recently announced a plan to reorganize school buildings based on enrollment trends. Most of the work is dedicated to aligning schools’ composition to either elementary, junior high, or high schools, but this plan will simultaneously determine which buildings are so underutilized that they should close.
This is a difficult charge for RCSD. Closing schools is never popular and should always be a last resort. But we must heed the call from State Monitor Shelley Jallow and begin to right-size the school district. Enrollment data presented in August illustrated a decline of over 7,000 students since 2010, and demographic trends suggest that this decline is going to continue for many years.
During this lengthy enrollment decline, RCSD has been very reluctant to close schools, largely because of a concern that any vacated district buildings will quickly become charter schools and further reduce enrollment. We are writing to encourage RCSD officials to make data-informed decisions to right-size the district as soon as possible, with a promise that the city of Rochester will prioritize converting vacated school buildings to affordable housing units.
When RCSD surrenders a building, ownership reverts to the city of Rochester. We have an opportunity to transform these buildings into safe, quality and affordable housing. We’ve seen successful transformations of school buildings into housing in the past—good examples include the old School 24 on Meigs Street and Susan B. Anthony apartments on Central Park. Moreover, this is in line with priorities already demonstrated by this Council and administration. Last month, we endorsed applications to support the conversion of various buildings to mixed-use and affordable housing initiatives.
This is an opportunity to work together across different levels of government to make smart decisions that will benefit the larger community. If RCSD right-sizes their footprint, it could mean more and better services at fully occupied school buildings that were recently renovated through the School Modernization Program.
The underutilized buildings can be returned to the city of Rochester, and Council will advocate at the state level to fund the transformation of these buildings into safe, high-quality, affordable housing opportunities for Rochester residents. So often, we operate in inefficient silos—it is time we work together to benefit our scholars, our residents, and our city.
Miguel A. Meléndez Jr. is president and councilmember at-large of Rochester City Council. Mitch Gruber is finance chair and councilmember at-large. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.