Public needs to weigh in on Vargas's schools modernization plan

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There has been almost no serious public reaction to Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas’s proposal for the second phase of modernizing city schools. Vargas has held several public meetings to present the plan, which calls for closing five schools and spending about $625 million on modernizing buildings over the next 10 years.

The school board will hold its first public hearing on the proposal at 6:30 p.m., tonight (Thursday, December 6,) at the district’s central office, 131 West Broad Street. Vargas will present the plan, which is also on the district’s website at www.rcsdk12.org, and a public comment period will follow.

Major problems with School 16 — an old heating system and sewer odors from the boys bathroom, to name a few — prompted Vargas to abruptly close the school in the fall. A subsequent inventory of all of the district’s buildings served as the foundation of Vargas’s new proposal.

Vargas has repeatedly stressed that his proposal is only a draft. Still, there are questions that should be addressed in his future presentations. For starters, what is the status of the first phase of the modernization plan, and how has the $325 million for that portion of the project been spent? And is the project coming in on budget?

Phase one of the project called for modernizing 12 schools. Vargas’s new proposal includes some of those same schools, such as East High. A total of $80 million would be spent on East between the two phases — a huge expense. What is Vargas recommending that costs so much?

The district has gotten itself in a difficult position because of past decisions regarding school choice. Residents and parents frequently say they want a neighborhood school, but according to the district’s data, only 14 percent of city students attend their home or neighborhood school, 45 percent don’t attend their neighborhood school within their zone, and 26 percent live in a different zone from their neighborhood school.

And there are additional yearly expenses linked to the choice program, such as transportation. So which direction does the new proposal recommend: returning to neighborhood schools or continuing with a choice program?

And how does the plan for modernizing city schools fit with the city’s plan for revitalizing neighborhoods? Though the plan does make some recommendations for replacing some older city schools and consolidating space, it’s not clear how this relates to what the city plans for neighborhood revitalization. And this is supposed to be a joint project.

Vargas deserves credit for his communication efforts. He’s been actively promoting his plan since mid November. And there’s no question that some of Rochester’s school buildings are too old for 21st century learning without major reconstruction.

School board members have been oddly quiet about the new proposal. But they had no input into its development, and they don't have a lot of control over the schools modernization project. But before spending $625 million, more explanation is needed. And parents and residents need to clarify what they want, since they’re picking up the tab.

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