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Oh, just let ’em fail



Far be it from me to suggest that the editorial page at The Other Paper is racist. You can draw your own conclusions.

            Here are excerpts from recent editorials in the Democrat and Chronicle:

            May 16, on the Rochester school district, which will have to cut crucial programs if it doesn't get more state and city aid: "More cuts are the answer.... Hoping for a generous visit from the Albany angel is fraught with danger. Deficits are best cured from within."

            May 17, on the May 18 vote on school budgets in suburban districts: "With many districts proposing an increase in school taxes --- as high as 15 percent in Holley, Orleans County --- the temptation exists to simply vote against a higher tax bill.

            "But students deserve more than knee-jerk reactions, which often are not in line with a community's true priorities....the Holley school budget will increase taxes, but it will also save sports programs, school plays, the yearbook, computer, art and music courses, the National Honor Society, Advanced Placement classes, and pre-kindergarten."

            May 20, after voters in every suburban district in Monroe County approved their school budgets: "The voters were both smart and wise. They were smart because they resisted the tendency to blame their school boards and superintendents for things beyond their control: a big spike in the state retirement plan payment, higher health and energy costs, and the habitually late state budget, which includes state aid.

            "Voters were wise because they understood that while tax increases are painful, they are less so than weak public schools that hurt kids and deflate housing values."

            And there you have it: in the suburbs, where most schools are overwhelmingly white, the public has an obligation to come up with enough money for the schools --- even for school plays and yearbooks. The Rochester school district, whose student population is heavily black and Latino, should just suck it in. Cut the programs. Don't count on any "angels."

            This in the week of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, which was to have ended a system of segregated, separate-and-unequal schools.

Suburban school districts get federal, state, and county aid, but they are also able to raise their own money. In the suburbs, residents vote on their school budgets, and on school-tax increases. In New York's largest cities, including Rochester, school districts have no power to raise money. They're completely dependent on what federal, state, and city governments provide.

            That causes the tension you're seeing between the Rochester school district and Mayor Bill Johnson. The school district, like other districts and governments in New York, is trying to cope with rising costs. In the budget it just approved, the School Board cut expenses by $23 million, reducing staffs and closing one school, among other things. The budget counts on $29 million in increased state aid, which district officials say they believe they'll get. And it includes $7 million more in city funding than Johnson says the city will provide.

            Johnson's facing enormous budget problems of his own. To balance the city's budget, he is proposing cutting city services by $6.7 million, as well as increasing property taxes and fees.

            Unless the city reduces funding for the school district, he says, it will have to cut services still further. In addition, Johnson has long insisted that the school district isn't doing a good job --- in teaching children, and in managing its finances.

            Although the district's enrollment has declined, says Johnson, the number of employees has been increasing. School-district officials say the increases have been essential. They're hired more teachers, they say, to reduce class sizes, to try to help the district's large poverty population.

            When he presented his new city budget to the media last week, Johnson launched an angry attack on the school district. The school district's budget, he said, doesn't reflect reality.

            "It continues to mystify me," said Johnson, "that the Rochester City School District feels it's the only municipal entity in the entire world that should be exempt" from having to make tough choices.

Whichever side you take in this almost annual battle between Johnson and the district, you ought not to lose sight of one important fact: the Rochester school district educates the poorest children in the county. The district's population, in fact, is the poorest in the state. It is poorer than the student populations of Chicago and Washington, DC.

            With that poverty come enormous problems. A packet distributed by the school district last week cites these statistics:

            • 43 percent of the parents of kindergarten students did not graduate from high school. (Some did return for GED's or evening-school diplomas.)

            • 38 percent of city kindergarteners "have problems with vision, hearing, motor skills, language, or cognition that seriously impede their ability to learn."

            • More than 10 percent of the city children tested by the county health department had high lead levels in their blood, which health officials say causes major learning problems.

            • More than 2200 city students come from other countries --- 28 other countries, in fact --- and they speak more than 30 different languages.

            To adequately educate those children requires enormous resources. It requires talented, experienced teachers. And yet the district is in intense competition for qualified teachers. The median salary for Rochester teachers is lower than for teachers in nearly all of the other districts in Monroe County.

            The school district's critics are right, of course: the district could find more ways to cut costs. It could increase class sizes and lay off all the teachers' aides. It could eliminate pre-kindergarten, which the district provides to help children from poor (and poorly educated) families enter school better prepared. It could eliminate AP classes and magnet programs like School of the Arts.

            In the suburbs, according to The Other Paper, voters have their priorities straight. But what the heck: the Rochester district's students are only city kids. Perish the thought that we should be screaming at Albany for more aid and a prompt budget. Instead, apparently, like the Other Paper, we should be happy for Rochester children to attend segregated schools --- schools that are as unequal as those in the South before Brown.

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