Mayor Lovely Warren backs plan for RCSD monitor 

As Governor Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday released additional details about his proposal to appoint a monitor for the Rochester City School District, Mayor Lovely Warren embraced the idea.

“What I wanted was for the state to actually come in to the city of Rochester, to actually put in place someone that could actually give the children of Rochester what they actually deserve, which is a quality education, which is a fiscal situation that does not cause them to scramble in the middle of the school year,” Warren told reporters at a news conference. “I believe that this is the first step.”

The governor’s proposed legislation would have the state’s education commissioner and Warren appoint a monitor who would “provide oversight, guidance and technical assistance related to the educational and fiscal policies, practices, programs and decisions of the school district, the board of education and the superintendent.”

Under the legislation, the monitor would be a non-voting member of the city school board and would be responsible for reviewing the district’s budget to ensure it is balanced.

The monitor would also be required to hold three public hearings within 60 days of taking the post. The first hearing would cover district governance, the second would focus on academic performance in the district, and the third would be on district finances.

The legislation calls for the monitor to work with the school district and mayor to develop an academic improvement plan and improve the district’s finances and operations. The monitor would be responsible for making sure those plans are carried out.

Last year, the mayor called on state lawmakers to temporarily take over the district, remove the elected school board, and replace it with one appointed by the state Board of Regents. City Council passed legislation, introduced by Warren, to hold a referendum on a proposed state takeover.

The referendum was challenged in court by the school board and never made it to the ballot.

Over the summer, news emerged that the district had overspent its budget for the previous academic year by $30 million, and was facing an estimated $65 million gap in this year’s budget. The district has since taken cost-cutting measures, among them laying off scores of teachers and other district employees.

Warren has remained extremely critical of the school board in light of the budget crisis.

“I am going to support the state coming in and doing what we asked them to do, which is provide the academic and the fiscal support that’s needed here in Rochester because our school board has failed to do their due diligence and failed to live up to what they were elected to do in our community,” Warren said.

City School Board President Van White, who stressed that the board hasn’t had a chance to discuss Cuomo’s proposal and that he was speaking for himself, said that he accepts the need for a financial monitor.

“I find under the circumstances that that might be a reasonable response to the current situation,” White said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. He went on to clarify that he was referring to the district’s former chief financial officer, Everton Sewell, who he said misled the board and superintendent about district finances.

The board doesn’t supervise the chief financial officer and can’t hire anyone for or fire anyone from the position.

But White is opposed to developing an academic improvement plan, which he said “would be redundant at best and ineffective and counterproductive in the worst-case scenario.”

The district just spent over a year working with state-appointed Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino, who prepared a report identifying many serious problems with district operations. The school board had to develop an improvement plan to address deficiencies identified in Aquino’s report and, after rejecting several previous versions, the state education department approved it in November.

“This community should not invest an additional dollar in such an effort to create a new plan because we already have one which the state Department of Education says is a good, comprehensive improvement plan for our district,” White said

Student performance is also improving, White said. He pointed to increasing graduation rates and incremental improvements in standardized test scores.

Cuomo announced his proposal to appoint a monitor for the Rochester district Tuesday as he presented his 2020-21 budget plan. During a brief interview after the address, Assembly member Harry Bronson said that he supported the idea of a monitor to help help the district address its fiscal and academic problems, though he cautioned that he hadn’t seen the legislation yet.

Bronson noted that he’s been asking state officials to provide the district with assistance, such as a state aid “spin up” loan, to help it close the budget gap it faces. A monitor would be a reasonable condition of such an agreement.

“It’s prudent to have a monitor in place,” Bronson said.

But the monitor could also get drawn into an ongoing political clash. Whereas Warren wants the state to take over governance of the district, Bronson opposes the removal of the elected school board.

Alex Yudelson, Warren’s chief of staff, is running for Bronson’s seat. Both candidates are Democrats.

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at [email protected].

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