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Morelle calls for U.S. Justice Dept. to investigate the city school district's finances

Rep. Joe Morelle
Office of Rep. Joe Morelle
Rep. Joe Morelle

Congressman Joe Morelle is calling on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate “ongoing financial and operational troubles” of the Rochester City School District.

Morelle’s letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr comes after the district recently said that it found a discrepancy during a routine audit, and may have overspent its budget for the 2018-19 school year.

District officials did not immediately have details on how much that overspending may have amounted to, but on Saturday the Democrat & Chronicle reported that four people with direct knowledge of the situation revealed that district officials are dealing with about a $50 million shortfall.

In his letter to the Justice Department released on Sunday, Morelle references the reported budget gap, and says that it “only serves to raise further alarm and frustration within our community as RCSD has already been cited by the New York State Education Department (NYSDE) as needing to undertake a total reset in the way in which it operates.”

Morelle writes that “the District’s continued failings ultimately amount to students in the City of Rochester, the vast majority of whom are students of color, being denied their fundamental right to an equal and adequate education.”

Morelle, a Democrat who represents the 25th Congressional District, says it is his hope that the DOJ might intervene to “ensure justice for our students and their families. 

During an afternoon news conference at the Greater Rochester International Airport, Morelle said that, he hasn’t been able to confirm the exact amount overspent, but he’s confident that it’s in the tens of millions of dollars.

“In any organization no matter how large or how small, you have monthly reports you have quarterly reports. You looking at it you’re measuring it against your budget and what your projections are and how close those projections are to actual. It boggles my mind that after a month or two of seeing substantial expenditures beyond budget numbers that you wouldn’t hold up the red flag," Morelle said.

Also on Sunday, Rochester School Board member Beatriz LeBron issued a statement calling on Board President Van White and Chair of the finance committee Willa Powell to step down from those leadership positions, contending that they "have proven they cannot provide proper oversight."

White says he will not step down as board president, calling on the community to wait until all the facts come out before making judgments.

On Twitter, District Supt. Terry Dade, who just took over that post in July, said that he has assembled a team of finance and audit personnel to review what happened and the steps needed to address the deficit.

Dade says he knows that difficult decisions will have to be made, but he says he has no plans for reducing staff to deal with that financial impact.

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's director of news and public affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.