Board President Van White responds to concerns about building housing city and charter schools

Dec 8, 2017

Credit Alex Crichton / WXXI News

Rochester School Board President Van White has a message for anyone concerned about 690 Saint Paul Street. He says until the data shows otherwise, the building is safe.

“Monroe County Department of Health, again, these are people who get degrees and research and understand it. They’re not educators in this building. I’m not the one making the call saying the building is safe. These folks have degrees and have looked at this kind of thing. They're saying it’s safe.”

All City High and Rochester Prep Elementary School are both located at the building. Students and staff have expressed concerns that the school, a brownfield site, is negatively impacting their health. They reportedly blame the site for cancer diagnoses, ectopic pregnancies and respiratory diseases. Earlier this week, Rochester Prep students held a protest, demanding a response from the District. Now they have the option to leave the building.

White said he understands their fears. Pointing to his own history with cancer and asthma, he says these can be scary diseases but that ultimately those concerned in the building don’t have the formal education to deem the building unsafe.

“All data seem to suggest that that property is safe,” he said. “But again, people’s concerns have to be understood in their context. They’re not scientists. They’re only hearing, maybe, non-degreed people talk about things like cancer and so we are responsible for dealing with them as they are.”

“It’s my responsibility and everyone in this building to make sure that people who do  have those degrees are available to the citizens and those people are saying, that property is safe,” he added.

Mayor Lovely Warren has publicly stated she wouldn’t send her daughter, Taylor, to the school and Commissioner Cynthia Elliot has criticized the building’s safety going back at least five years but White says that until the data proves it, these fears don’t prove the building is actually unsafe.

He says when they signed the lease for it almost a decade ago, they didn’t know it was a brownfield site.

“We subsequently learned it was a brownfield but then the experts came in and said as they’ve said consistently that the site is safe,” he explained. “Some remediation has been going on over there…but all data seem to suggest the property is safe.”

The District has instead left it up to school administration, staff and students and their families to decide their next move. Rochester Prep will move to the former Nazareth Academy location at 1001 Lake Ave. They will finish the year there and could also stay for the next school year. All City High staff are still considering their options. But White says even if they leave, the District will keep the building because they can’t afford to lose the educational space.

According to White, the District needs space because of growing demands from the student population. Just three months ago Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico. Since hundreds of families have moved to Rochester and at least 400 students have joined the District. White said he has to balance these needs with concerns at 690.

“It’s as much a need to respond to making parents feel comfortable about 690 as it is about trying to make sure we have space for these 400 students from Puerto Rico,” he said.

Regardless of whether schools leave the building, White said no major renovations or changes are planned for the facility until the data proves they’re necessary.