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The tough road ahead


As expected, last Thursday City Council turned down the Rochester school district's pleas to give it the funding it wants.

            The vote came on a technical point: Mayor Bill Johnson's budget gives the district $7 million less than the city charter stipulates, and Thursday's vote was on amending the charter. The vote on the budget itself was to take place Tuesday night, June 22. But in reality, Johnson's recommendation has been approved.

            The vote wasn't unanimous: three of nine councilmembers wanted to give the district an additional $4.4 million. A fourth, Tim Mains, argued for more funding but abstained from voting because he is a city school principal.

            The discussion among councilmembers was as emotional as the hearings on the school budget have been. And their comments provided a chilling preview of what city residents may face in the future.

            For the past several weeks, many critics of the school budget have focused on whether the district uses its money wisely. But at Thursday's Council meeting, only one councilmember, the northwest district's Bob Stevenson, raised that issue. Stevenson, a former city teacher, noted that despite reductions in enrollment, the district wants to spend $24 million more next year. "I just don't see the need for an increase of $24 million," he said.

            Most of the debate, however, centered on the trap in which the city as a whole --- City Hall and the school district --- finds itself: rising expenses, poverty, and service demands, and declining tax base.

            Councilmember Brian Curran, Tim Mains, and Adam McFadden argued for restoration of at least part of the mayor's cut. They said they had identified items in the city budget that could be cut without raising taxes or seriously impacting services.

Curran noted that in every Monroe County suburb (where voters, not town government, approve local school-district funding), residents have approved tax hikes and larger school budgets this spring. The average increase, said Curran, was 5.7 percent: "the same percent that the mayor would take away from the school district."

            Mains argued that education is as important as fire and police, which Johnson exempted from cuts. "You can talk about the number of kids going down and expenses going up," said Mains. "Well, let me tell you, the expenses are going to continue to go up, because the needs are so great."

            McFadden, citing the district's large African-American population, ticked off statistics: the large number of young black men in prison, the high failure rate of black children in school. "Eighty percent of children in special education are black," said McFadden. "We can find $18,000 to $40,000 a year to incarcerate black men, but can't find a dollar to educate them."

            Both Gladys Santiago and Bill Pritchard said they had agonized over their decision. Recalling a speaker at a budget hearing who had threatened to vote against councilmembers who didn't support higher school funding, Pritchard said he would resign himself "if I can't be principled."

            In the end, only Pritchard joined McFadden and Curran and voted to provide more school funding.

            Ben Douglas, who chairs Council's finance committee (and who is a former School Board member), cited the budget strains on both the city and the school district and said, "It looks like there's no end in sight."

            "Nobody wants to make these cuts," said Douglas. "My kids are in city schools, and I don't want to see them hurt."

            Douglas reminded other councilmembers that the revenue in Johnson's budget includes $15 million in state funds that city officials aren't certain they'll get. If that money doesn't come through, said Douglas, the city will not only have to cut what Curran says it could but will have to cut much more.

Gladys Santiago, whose children are city-school graduates and whose grandchildren will soon attend city schools, said the decision "hurts like heck." But, she said, "I am supporting the mayor's budget, because I am not willing to raise taxes, and I am not willing to cut recreation programs." Those programs, she said, are important to the city's poorest residents, who include many Latinos and African-Americans.

            And an intense, passionate Wade Norwood spoke of a city government on the brink of a fiscal calamity and a community whose needs are becoming overwhelming. "I remind you that I am the parent of city school children," he said, "and I see the needs of the schools every day."

            But, he said, "there is no way in God's green earth" that the city can solve all of the problems. "I honestly believe that the estimate we have made that we will receive in state funding is more than a gamble. It is a dangerous gamble." The mayor, he predicted, will have to make still more cuts in city services "just to preserve the fiscal health of this city."

            The needs of the city and its residents are severe, said Norwood. In his own neighborhood, he said, residents are facing declining property values and rising property taxes. Children in some neighborhoods walk down streets with boarded up-houses and trash-strewn lots. Some are afraid to walk to school.

            "We have families who can't afford to pay their RG&E bill," said Norwood. "The hurt is coming home."

            Norwood, Curran, and Council president Lois Giess said the community needs to join together in its struggle and find new solutions. "We really need to find a way to get past this us-versus-them attitude," said Curran. "We all represent the same people. We are the same people. The children in the city schools are the same children who are in the neighborhoods we are trying to serve."

            For both the city and the school district, said Council president Lois Giess, the pain is likely to get worse. "Just yesterday," said Giess, "the House approved another corporate tax bill," giving businesses additional tax cuts. "This year we --- the city, the school board --- are at the bottom of the heap," said Giess. "We are not only picking up the scraps from the floor, we are not even at the table."

            "It is absolutely critical that we start thinking in a new way," said Giess.