Budget Director Robert Mujica sent a strongly worded letter to Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren and interim state Education Commission Elizabeth Berlin in which he said that the education department, the mayor, and City Council should use their authority “to address the chronic mismanagement and underperformance facing the school district.”
He said Berlin should “immediately investigate public allegations of mismanagement and fraud.” He urged Berlin to investigate “and, if necessary, remove school board members and school officers”; to name a new distinguished educator for the district, and to immediately place schools with persistent academic problems into receivership.
He said city officials should exercise their power to review the district’s expenditures and budget.
The school district overspent its 2018-19 budget by an estimated $30 million, depleting its reserve fund in the process. That created a deficit that will impact this year’s school budget and that could damage the city’s credit rating, since the city has to borrow money for the district.
In his letter, Mujica called the district’s current financial and academic situation “untenable.”
Mujica pointed to a warning about the district’s finances that school board member Beatriz Lebron gave to City Council before they approved last year’s budget, as well as Council’s own resolution mentioning reports from outside parties criticizing the district’s financial operations. “The Council, in its Resolution, further alleged fraudulent representations by school district officials,” Mujica said. “To our knowledge, none of these allegations have been formally investigated.”
The state Education Department is “extremely concerned with the dire situation in Rochester” and is aware that systemic change is needed, spokesperson Emily DeSantis said in a statement released after Mujica’s letter was distributed to the media. The state comptroller’s office has begun auditing the district’s 2018-19 budget, but that will take months to complete. The Education Department has told the school board and the superintendent that they have to act on the financial problem immediately, DeSantis said. “Further, we stand ready to partner with law enforcement agencies in any investigations the appropriate authorities feel are warranted,” the statement said.
“Everything remains on the table and discussion needs to continue to find the best solution for Rochester’s students,” DeSantis’s statement said.
DeSantis also included a copy of a September 27 letter from Berlin to school board President Van White, urging immediate action on financial management.
City spokesperson Justin Roj issued the following statement:
"Mayor Warren has been consistent in calling on the State to act on behalf of Rochester's children. We agree with the call from the State Budget Director - and the rulings from the State Supreme Court and Appellate Division - that the Department of Education must take action now to protect the short term health of our city's families and taxpayers. However, the Mayor still agrees with the State's Distinguished Educator who called for a 'total reset' of the system. While short term fixes that the State Budget Director proposed are important to protect Rochester residents, we must continue to pursue real State legislation to allow our children to reach their full potential."
Dade to give financial update todayRochester Superintendent Terry Dade will tell the school board later today what his staff has learned about the 2018-19 budget deficit, how it happened, and how it is affecting the current year’s budget.
He’ll also outline what he wants to do to bring the budget back in line and start replenishing the district’s reserve fund.
His presentation will take place at a special board meeting at 5:30 p.m. at the district’s Central Office.
Dade plans to give regular public reports on his investigation into budget issues and his plans for dealing with them, district spokesperson Carlos Garcia said this afternoon. He’ll make another report at the school board’s finance committee meeting in early November, Garcia said.