For years, the Rochester school district has struggled with financial management issues, both perceived and real. Its annual budget is now almost $1 billion, and some observers see that as an example of bureaucratic bloat. The budget keeps increasing, critics say, even though just over half of the district's students graduate in four years, and until this year, enrollment had been declining since 2000.
But other observers point to the district's extreme challenges. The student population is arguably the poorest in the state, and a significant number of students need language and special education support. Providing an education to those students is complicated and expensive.
It's in this context that the Children's Agenda released a report last week analyzing parts of the district's 2018-2019 budget. The report questions whether the district is spending its money in the most effective way. Is it, for example, directing enough resources to the children who most need help?
The district's budget for next year calls for a substantial increase in staffing, including 132 additional teachers, many of them bilingual special-education teachers. That can't happen soon enough, says Eamonn Scanlon, policy analyst for the Children's Agenda.
But the report notes that district budgets often include an increase in staffing, and those positions aren't always filled.
At a press conference last week, Scanlon and several parents said the district clearly doesn't have enough bilingual staff and teachers, which makes it hard for parents to communicate with school staff.
Worse, says the report, the district has no cohesive plan for working with new Spanish-speaking students and families. The district has nearly 5,000 Spanish-speaking students, a number that increased as Puerto Rican families came here in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Many of those students have both language and special education needs.
Wailany Olio, who speaks only Spanish, has a son in School 9 who is doing well, she said at the press event. But her daughter, who has cerebral palsy, goes to School 29, where only a few adults speak Spanish, she said. Olio's daughter has feeding problems, and Olio is afraid to leave her alone at the school. Olio isn't confident that if an emergency arose and she was at home, she could communicate with school staff and tell them how to stop her daughter from choking.
"I take her to school every day, and I spend the day with her," Olio said.
A shortage of Spanish-speaking teachers isn't the district's only language challenge. For instance, about 400 district students speak Nepali.
The district's problems with special education are well documented, and the Children's Agenda report says they are made worse by chronic changes in leadership and staff.
Cheryl Carleton's son has Down's syndrome. He's in the sixth grade, and Carleton said she's extremely concerned about his transition into middle school. Carleton has had adjust to numerous staffing and leadership changes in her son's school in just this year, she said.
"I want to prepare him for this big change," she said. "But no one at the school building level can tell me what program options will be available to him next year."
While the district has many options for special education programs and specialists in several languages besides Spanish, it can't offer them in every school, and there is a shortage of teachers who are trained for this work nationwide.
To meet the needs of every child in every school, then, would require even more money.