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City school district tackles the budget --- again


It's a position no one would envy.

            For the second time in this year's budget cycle, Rochester school district officials are having to cut their budget, and more jobs and programs are on the line.

            Critics, including Mayor Bill Johnson, State Assemblyman David Gantt, and some business-community leaders, have repeatedly charged that the district is financially irresponsible. In response (and frustration), district officials have called for an audit by the state comptroller's office. A spokeswoman for Comptroller Alan Hevesi says the request is still being considered.

            "I don't know how many times we've got to balance this budget before somebody accepts it," mused School Board member Darryl Porter at Thursday's high-profile board meeting. The board voted 4-2 to give Superintendent Manuel Rivera the authority to cut $13 million more to make up for expected shortfalls in revenue.

            But even if last-minute negotiations with State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver release $20 million in spin-up money (essentially a loan) being blocked by Assemblyman Gantt, everyone agrees this is a one-time fix.

            Increases in the district's revenue aren't keeping pace with skyrocketing expenses;

barring some major change, the district's budget imbalance will likely continue.

The board includes one member who joined as a strong critic and fiscal watchdog: Jim Bowers, who received the support of Mayor Bill Johnson in his campaign for that reason.

            "I don't think I've changed as a critic," says Bowers. "I'm still a critic." But while Bowers says he is keen to scrutinize district finances, he rejects charges of mismanagement.

            "The problem with budgeting is no matter what you do or what you choose to fund, someone can criticize the choices you make," says Bowers. That's because the decision to fund one program and not another is based on values, he says, which may differ from one person to another. The district's critics, he says, "need to respect that fact that different elected officials in different institutions behave differently."

            For the district to become financially stable, says Bowers, "New YorkState needs to get a handle on what fiscal equity is for urban education." A study released by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in March said that Rochester needs 39.9 percent more state funds to adequately educate students.

            Bowers also thinks the city school district should have more control over its revenue sources. Unlike suburban districts, the Rochester school district does not have taxing or bonding power, so it depends on the state and city for revenue. "It is outside of our control," he says. "You have to depend on the good graces of others."

            "My own recommendation," he says, "would be to give the district fiscal independence."

            But Bowers also acknowledges that more money doesn't equal less accountability."Even if the revenue comes, you still have to spend it responsibly," he says. "Given a continued revenue problem, urban districts need to get a handle on where they want to spend their money and then make a case for it."

            That means facing uncomfortable choices, he says. With enrollment declining as the area's population growth stagnates, Bowers foresees more school closings. "Districts have to start making harder decisions," he says. He also thinks the city school should once more review its central administrative positions, if only to silence critics.

            Bowers also agrees that Rochester faces problems unique to city districts. "It goes without saying that urban kids come with vastly different problems," he says.

            For board vice president Rob Brown, that makes all the difference in the world. Brown rattles off statistics pointing out the disadvantages city students face before they ever enter a classroom. For example, elevated levels of lead in the blood are linked to severe learning disabilities. In one elementary school he recently visited, Brown says, 100 percent of the students had tested positive for lead, with over 40 percent at or above pathological levels. The district serves between 15,000 and 20,000 breakfasts a day, often to students who can't get a good meal anywhere else, he adds.

            "It requires an investment to bring them up to speed," says Brown. That investment represents money that suburban schools --- to which the city is often compared --- don't have to spend, or can spend on things like computers and sports.

            "Middle class people don't really understand," he says.

            "We have very little discretion over our budget," says Brown. He cites pensions as an example, which will cost the district 172 percent more this year than two years ago. "We have no control" over that, he says. What the district does have control over --- things like class sizes, magnet programs, arts and sports --- is what suffers when money runs out. For board veteran Brown, that's evidence of a system and a community that's "thoroughly segregated."

            Superintendent Manuel Rivera agrees. "Inequity exists today just as it did in [the time of] Brown v. Board of Education," Rivera told the crowd gathered at last week's board meeting.

            But pointing out inequity is one thing, says Bowers, and motivating and mobilizing people to respond to it is another challenge. "When it comes to education," he says, "this community has to examine what's the responsibility of the district, what's the responsibility of the parents, and what's the responsibility of the community."

            For most people right now, he contends, "It's easier to blame the district."