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RCSD votes to revamp Universal Pre-K program

Emily Hunt
for WXXI News

The Rochester Board of Education has voted in favor of Superintendent Terry Dade’s proposal to revamp the City School District’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten program

After a spirited debate Thursday night, commissioners Ricardo Adams, Willa Powell, Natalie Sheppard, Amy Maloy and Board President Van White voted for the proposal. Beatriz LeBron and Cynthia Elliott voted against it.

Dade’s plan moves elementary students out of School 44, 820 Chili Ave., and School 57, 15 Costar St., and replaces them with prekindergarten students who are currently in programs at 30 community-based organizations, like daycares and nonprofits. Those organizations, also known as CBOs, will retain 40 percent of the seats in the program.

The changes will take effect in the fall. 

Opponents of the plan are concerned about the program’s cost, the number of choices for parents, wraparound care, the quality of the education and whether the district would be able to rehab the facilities in time for the start of the next school year.

Dade said this plan will slow the district’s enrollment decline and save $4 million. 

Board President Van White said his decision came down to keeping the next generation of students in the district. 

“We want to compete as a district,” said White. “I know people said the district is questionable -- and that could be said about a lot of things in this district, although I think it's said too often -- and often it's inaccurate. 

“Nobody has ever said that about our pre-K program,” White continued. “It’s a nationally recognized program, and they’re not just talking about the CBOs, they’re talking about the district leadership and the district’s pre-K program. So stop suggesting that we as a district can’t provide the services that the CBOs provide.” 

LeBron remains against the proposal. She said the changes will likely cost the district money because the grants that largely fund Universal Pre-K are unlikely to cover all the expenses for things like rehabbing the schools.

“44 as a building is in deplorable conditions. So now we’re talking about fixing that building. How will we pay for that?,” LeBron told WXXI News before the meeting. “I think (the plan) lacks clarity and details. No board should be voting on something that is impactful and without clarity and details.”

LeBron said that concern is particularly important going into a budget year where the district has a gap of $55 to $60 million. She also raised concerns about not knowing which community-based organizations would be cut. Dade said the district will make those decisions later in the school year.

Powell said she wishes that School 44 was not part of this plan and would prefer that pre-K classes were spread out among all elementary schools. But she said Schools 44 and 57 are likely to close anyway because of low enrollment and said the district has to have a plan for those buildings.

“Just because we have to shrink our footprint does not mean that I’m eager to see our buildings turned over to the city and used for charter schools,” said Powell.

Powell also shot down claims that Dade’s plan would dramatically hurt community-based organizations.

“I expect that it would just be a small diminishment of seats from all of the CBOs throughout the city, a classroom here and a classroom there,” said Powell. “I don’t expect that community-based organizations would go out of business and close their doors unless they deserve to, which means they’re not meeting our standard anyway.”

Eamonn Scanlon, a policy analyst for the Children's Agenda, said the safety and building requirements for the CBOs are higher than those for district facilities. The Children’s Agenda released a paper on Monday asking Dade and the Board of Education to reconsider voting on this matter this soon.

During the meeting, Board Vice President Cynthia Elliott asked for a motion to remove the schools from the plan; only she and LeBron supported it. Elliott -- who works for Baden Street Settlement, which could be affected by this change -- expressed concern about the effect of this decision on the relationship between the district and community. 

“We have heard that parents are not involved, that the community is not involved, but every time the community gets involved, they have their faces slapped,” said Elliott. “It just seems like there is more value to having good working relationships with our parents and our community-based organizations than it is to try to keep two buildings. And that’s disconcerting, so I don’t know how I can trust this district.

“It doesn’t make fiscal sense,” said Elliot. “Aren’t there other priorities to work on? That would be more cost-effective, that would really build this district to the point that it would have a really quality educational experience? I don’t get it. Why would we try to pimp the community-based organizations for their program to try to make the district program better?” 

In a statement released to WXXI before the meeting, Sheppard expressed her support for the plan and said that the district is working on offering some of the options that opponents are worried about losing. 

“I’m considering strategic ways to address the RCSD’s financial debilitation as a result of declining student enrollment,” said Sheppard. “I also am looking for what wrap care options will be offered to families, and specialized programming for our youngest learners through extracurricular activities, athletic and non-athletic.”

During the meeting, she rebuked City Council for speaking up on the issue; Council sent a letter to Dade and the school board asking them to delay the vote. 

“If I got a hard copy of that letter, I probably would have crumpled it up and threw it in the trash because it is garbage,” said Sheppard. “The problem that I have with the city telling us that they oppose this is that they offer no solutions. So to me, I feel like this is a complete political theater.

“We have a mayor that is going down to Albany just a few weeks ago and talked about the city of Rochester decreasing the funding that they’re giving to us,” Sheppard continued.

"She also talked about the city having their own $40 million deficit … . So instead of everybody coming together to figure out how we’re going to fix this thing, we have people cherry-picking the issues that they want to come out on.”

Like Elliott, Council President Loretta Scott expressed concerns about the community losing faith in the pre-K program.

“We’re concerned because the program works, and the amount of disruption that it would cause is considerable,” said Scott. “And the process for implementing it was effective as well because the stakeholders were able to be at the table and buy-in.” 

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.