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You're not the boss of me

It's the schools vs. the city

by and

The Rochester School Board wants a chance to get its own house in order before City Hall calls in maid service.

            City Council has proposed changing the city charter to dictate, some school board members say, the format the school budget will take. Council needs to make certain requirements, explains Councilman Benjamin Douglas, because the school board hasn't provided the city with clear, consistent budget information in the past.

            "[It's] nothing more than asking for clarity, so the city can simply follow what's going on," he says. "We don't understand the numbers that are coming over."

            But some school board members have bristled over what they see as the city's attempt to usurp their authority and to paint them as fiscal incompetents in the process.

            "I think a lot of it is an ego issue [among certain school board members] of whether they [the city] have any business telling us what the format should or should not be. Or whether that's our business," says Commissioner Willa Powell. "We understand their obligation is to approve our overall revenues and expenses and to allocate whatever portion of the city budget they're prepared to allocate toward the schools. That's the whole concept of the school district being autonomous from the city."

The most egregious part of the council's proposal, Powell says, is that it wants "every single change" from the past year to the current year's budget explained in a narrative form.

            "They did make some valid points about the format of our budget [being] different from year to year, but again, the question is, who is the budget for, them or us?" Powell says. "It could be an effort to cover themselves from spillover criticism [of the school district], or it could be just a new way to criticize the school district; a new attack on the school district."

            Council has also asked for multi-year budgeting.

            "We're not disputing that that's the best practice," Powell says, adding that a budget policy adopted late last year by the school board also calls for multi-year budgeting.

            "That's us overseeing ourselves," Powell says. "There's a difference between us acknowledging that this is a best guess and having other people impose this on us and then use those best guesses against us in future years."

            City Hall has a habit, she says, of painting the school district in an irresponsible and disparaging way.

            "The truth is, we are doing our very best with the dollars we have," says Commissioner Rob Brown, adding that the charter change "looks like an implied criticism in the middle of a budget crisis."

            The district is projecting a $50 million deficit in its upcoming budget.

            The school district, Brown says, is wrongly accused of fiscal incompetence on a regular basis. If the city sends the message that the district is "wasting more money," it will be difficult, he says, for City Hall and the school board to present a united front to the public and to leaders in Albany.

            And, he says, it will play into the historical rift between the school board and City Hall.

            Brown called for collaboration between City Hall and the school board. The two should work together, he says, to find a budget format that works for both sides.

The city, Douglas says, isn't trying to force a method of operation on the school district. The frustration has been that the information the city gets from the district is different from year to year, making it impossible to do any kind of comparison. The data, he says, is lacking to the point where the city can't even ask informed questions about the budget.

            "It's very hard to understand the stream of things," Douglas says. "Believe it or not, City Council is an ally to the school district. We are trying to govern the same city."

            The budget policy adopted by the school board last December covers a lot of the things City Council is asking for, school board members say. City Hall should give the policy a chance to work, they say, before imposing changes.

            "We think we're doing some things right and this begs further discussion," says school board President Shirley Thompson. "We're eager for the opportunity to put our house in order."

            The school board wants council to take a look at the new board policy, make suggestions, and maybe the city's concerns can be addressed that way, rather than by amending the charter.

            City Council President Lois Giess, however, thinks going the policy route sets a dangerous precedent.

            "They could ask us about other policies," she says. "Which policies would they like us to comment on?"

            The council's proposal, Giess explains, originated with Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson. It was introduced last year but withdrawn after objections from the school board. Staffs from City Hall and the school district have been meeting, Giess says, and she thought the differences had been worked out. She's surprised that the school board still takes umbrage to the proposal.

            Giess will wait to hear from Douglas, who attended a school board study session about the proposal last week, before deciding whether to re-submit the legislation.