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Rochester City Council questions RCSD leaders on finances

Transparency and a lack of confidence were among the concerns voiced as Rochester City Council members peppered city school district leaders with questions about the district's finances Thursday night. 

Internal and external investigations are ongoing into how the district went from a balanced budget that it presented to City Council in June to about $30 million in the red this fall. 

Some of the most pointed questions came from Councilmember Michael Patterson who said that there is a crisis of confidence between the community and the district and that it was shocking that the crisis involves the district’s finances. Patterson went on to grill District Superintendent Terry Dade on the contents of a powerpoint document presented to council on the district’s shortfall.

Patterson said all but one particular page was confusing. That page outlines the top 6 areas of district overspending. He called that page “crystal clear”  but also said it was full of inconsistencies.

Credit Rochester City School District

Patterson: "Rough math, quick math, what would be the total that you overspent for the 18-19 budget year could you or someone on your team do that math? Could you share that with us?"

Dade: "Yes, 22.4 million overall. So page 12 represents one of the things I asked our finance team. I asked look at the 18-19 budget. Look at the budget line items and expenditures by year end and bring to me the top areas that we overspent and under budgeted and these are the top 6 that were reported to me. This isn’t our complete budget but when you do plus or minus where we’ve overspent by 22.4 total for the 18-19 school year.

Patterson: "Let’s go through it again. I’m not trying to give you a hard time or play gotcha. The first question is based on what you just answered there are other items that you’ve overspent but there are other items in addition to this?"

Dade: Correct.

Patterson: "And I’m looking at the first line being $18 million, the second line being $7 million, I’m looking at the line after that being $6 million. You just said it was $22 million dollars. This document doesn’t show me $22 million of overspending. It seems to show me a significantly greater number. Can you please explain to me the number that I see for these six items because I find it confusing."

After the meeting, Dade told the media that Patterson’s confusion came because the slides were not put in proper context.

“It was just a sincere area of confusion when you haven’t been in attendance in the actual audit meeting when I was actually presenting those slides live for the board of education,” said Dade. 

Board of Education President Van White says the page was mislabeled. In response to multiple questions, White brought up rising graduation rates and the recent referendum on a state takeover of the district that a judge threw out last month. 

Council Vice President Willie Lightfoot said these elements were not “germane to the conversation.” Lightfoot also expressed concern about the district's lack of specific dates for turning over documents.

“We’re talking about specifically the fiscal responsibility of your organization,” said Lightfoot “And these documents are critical to our understanding of how we’re going forward.”

Dade says his office was unaware of council’s need for last year’s financial documents and will provide them shortly.

When questioned on a timeline for his decision making Dade said repeatedly that he did not want to make cuts until got advice from the Board of Education and union leaders. He also said he planned to announce his decisions a month from now. 

Patterson also mentioned concerns about the district’s approach to their problems. 

“Your actions or your past inactions, whomever's fault they were, are now negatively impacting the whole city of Rochester more so than they ever have before,” said Patterson. “I’m happy to see the confidence that you display. It is wonderful. But it's also frightening on some level. Time is no one’s friend in this. And you have our babies. You can’t wait to make cuts. But time is not your friend and I don’t feel a burning sense of urgency. I’m not looking for fear because fear doesn’t help but there’s a calmness about this sense that we’ve been here before and we can do this again and ya’ll need need to settle down.”

In response, White said now is not the time to let emotions like anger, anxiety, and frustration lead the way.

“Please don’t misunderstand our intentions when we sit here very calmly and cooly and rationally and try to provide the best answers that we can and if we can’t our commitment is to give you those answers as soon as possible,” said White.

After the meeting Board of Education Commissioner Beatriz Lebron equated the relationship between the city and the district to "a shotgun marriage" decided long before her time. She has doubts of her own about city leadership.

“I have a lack of confidence in them as well,” said Lebron. “I understand their frustration. I’m a resident of the 19th ward. I have lots of concerns in the southwest, and the overall economy in the city of Rochester and the poverty level in Rochester and what the city’s doing to address the trauma and the poverty that they’re experiencing when they’re not in our school buildings. So I can say the same thing about them and their work in city council but what I will say is at this point it feels like every elected official has to put away their self serving or political grandstanding. We have to kinda grow up and be professional. And whether we like each other personally or not we have to maintain the focus on the health and on our entire city and our school district.”

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.