State bails out RCSD with $35M, district will get fiscal and academic monitors 

State legislators and Governor Andrew Cuomo have struck a deal to bail out Rochester City Schools after the district overspent by more than $30 million last school year, resulting in a gap of  at least $60 million in its current year's budget. The district laid off more than 150 staffers in December in a bid to shrink the resulting deficit.

Assembly member Harry Bronson said that under the deal, the district will receive a $35 million loan from future state aid, known as spin-up aid, that it will pay back over at least 30 years. In exchange, the state education commissioner will appoint a fiscal and academic monitor for the district for a term of three years.

Bronson also said that without this agreement, the district may have been allowed to seek a line of credit but with a much shorter repayment window.

"We all understand these are tough fiscal times, but this big yes from the governor and state lawmakers, and the addition of a monitor, will go a long way to begin our fiscal stability moving forward," Superintendent Terry Dade and school board President Van White said in a statement released Wednesday.

District officials project that the December layoffs will save the district $25 million and that the $35 million in spin-up funding will close the budget gap this school year. But, the district now has to grapple with a budget gap for the next school year, 2020-21, which is projected at more than $60 million.

Dade recently proposed a 2020-21 budget  that calls for the elimination of 236 district jobs, including 193 teachers. But he's also cautioned that those figures may change based on how much state aid the district gets.

In January, Cuomo released legislation that would have put the state’s education commissioner and Mayor Lovely Warren in charge of appointing 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 deal announced today, Mayor Lovely Warren will not have a hand in appointing the monitor.

“The (education) commissioner will select the monitor,” Bronson said. “So there will be some involvement and partnership through the State Education Department, yet we will maintain local control.”

Bronson said the bill calls for the monitor to be hired “ASAP.” He said the bill was structured to foster collaboration between Superintendent Terry Dade, the state, the community, and the Board of Education. The superintendent and the monitor will create joint academic and fiscal plans for the district. If the board approves the plans, there will be a public hearing. If the board does not approve the plans, the state education commissioner will have the final say.

Initially, Bronson wanted two seperate monitors, one fiscal and one academic, similar to the Hempstead and Wyandanch school districts. Bronson said those roles were combined during negotiations with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office. He said combining the skillsets means finding someone akin to a superintendent.

Bronson said there was not much pushback from other lawmakers because there’s no evidence, as of now, that the $35 million overspent last school year was embezzled or involved in other criminal malfeasance. He cautioned that the district is still under investigation from the state comptroller's office.

“My colleagues in the Assembly understand the importance of fully funding education for our children,” said Bronson. “And they’re not going to punish children for the mismanagement of adults in this situation.”

Bronson also said that foundation aid, which funds schools statewide, will likely not be increased in any state budget agreement because of the estimated $10 to $15 billion dollar economic hit the state's taken from the coronavirus pandemic. He doesn't expect education funding to come in below last year’s levels; he said that the federal government will make up the difference.

“We think the schools will receive the kind of increase that they have in previous years,” said Broson. “But that money will come from Title 1 federal money instead of state money.”

Title 1 school districts, like Rochester, typically have high concentrations of low-income families which makes them eligible for specific federal grants.

Bronson thanked Rochester residents for their push for education funding.

“This could not have happened without the many strong voices and passion of parents throughout the district as well as students,” Bronson said.

James Brown is a reporter for WXXI News, a media partner of CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].

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