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The bumpy path to a smaller RCSD

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When Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas initially presented his proposal for the $675 million next phase of the schools modernization program, he said the district must eliminate unneeded space. But at a special board meeting last week, he took the conversation one step further.

"I'm telling teachers, parents, and administrators to look at the district smaller," Vargas said. "We are planning for a much smaller school district."

The blunt characterization of the state of the district caught some school board members by surprise. That's partly because the plan Vargas proposed, which recommends closing five schools, is starkly different from what school officials envisioned when the reconstruction project began in 2007.

Vargas's plan more closely reflects how the city's population loss has changed neighborhoods and the school system.

But instead of a clear strategy for building a 21st century school district, Vargas's plan borders on a 200-page nexus of government regulations and neighborhood issues that go beyond the physical condition of the buildings.

Designing a leaner RCSD while using many of the existing buildings and infrastructure is a formidable task, Vargas said. The needs the buildings served when they were built have changed. For example, some of the services schools provide, such as health care and bilingual instruction, were not even imagined 60 years ago.

And neighborhoods that once needed multiple schools can, in some cases, barely support one today.

Vargas's team also had to incorporate dozens of requirements imposed by the State Education Department, which will vet the final plan and its costs. Getting the maximum reimbursement from the state for the decade-long project depends on whether the SED approves the schools selected for upgrading and the rationale behind the choices, says Anita Murphy, the district's deputy superintendent of administration.

The SED has changed its approach to modernizing the state's big school districts from the years when the money was flowing, she says. The SED will want a plan that also looks at academic performance, enrollment projections, and the schools' adaptability.

And many of the schools Vargas has selected to modernize have been labeled priority schools by the SED — meaning there's an urgent need for a turnaround strategy. Vargas's plan has to support those considerations, too, Murphy says.

Getting everyone to agree on a plan will be difficult, and there is a risk that the district will keep losing students even after spending millions on upgrades. And critics of the plan fear the proposed school closings will hurt some neighborhoods. Parents want smaller schools and fewer large campuses that consolidate multiple schools, they say.

But Murphy told board members that the SED would never allow the district to demolish old school buildings and rebuild them in the same locations with the same low enrollment.

Board President Malik Evans and board member Van White say it's hard for them to concede the district is shrinking because past enrollment projections have changed.

Vargas says he is doing his best to create a plan that slows the district's loss of students, especially to charter schools. The district is not in direct competition with charter schools, he says, but officials still had to contemplate their impact when they developed the new plan.

More charter schools are expected to open in the city, and some will undoubtedly serve the same neighborhoods where the district is targeting school improvements.

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