Early this week, Rochester City School District board member Natalie Sheppard sent a plan to City Council and the Board of Education.
The plan’s goal is to make three changes that could re-establish the district’s credibility after its former Chief Financial Officer, Everton Sewell, told the board and city council that the district’s 2018-19 budget was balanced when it was actually $30 million in the red. That budget was approved by both the school board and City Council.
Sheppard said it’s not realistic for people with full-time jobs to oversee a budget that totals nearly $1 billion on a part-time basis. She suggests that at least two, if not all, school board positions be made full-time with pay increases. If that’s not possible, Sheppard says the board should cut two positions and make the other five full-time. Board members are now paid $30,000 a year.
“We are putting in a minimum of 25 to 30 (hours) that’s me. But when a lot of things are going on, a lot of different issues that are coming to the surface, it requires a lot more reading, research, a lot more planning. I would say it requires in excess of 40 hours,” Sheppard said.
Board of Education President Van White said the board and Superintendent Terry Dade will discuss the proposals in its committee meetings.
Sheppard also wants to take a different tack with the district’s vacant chief financial officer position. She said that the position should report to both the board and City Council as a way to involve the council in the budget process sooner. Or the district should create a new deputy chief financial officer position that only reports to City Council.
“It’s a person that is taking all the information in, that they can trust, because we are at the point that we need to rebuild that trust that we’ve lost at this point,” said Sheppard.
City Council President Loretta Scott said she’s still fact-finding, and isn’t at the point where she’s ready to make specific recommendations. But Scott made it clear that the time for half measures is over.
“CFOs are not independent and I’m not proposing that they be. If they’re being fed or instructed to take certain steps you still won’t know the depth of what’s going on,” said Scott. “It’s bigger than a set of minor interventions. I want to have a look at the system as a whole in order to see what we need to do.”
Scott said she’s glad that board members are considering changing their governance model but she is still in favor of larger changes in the district similar to a state takeover. Sheppard is, as Scott puts it, “nibbling around the edges.”
The third prong of Sheppard’s plan starts with a push for more state funding, and if that doesn’t happen, she says the district should either cap all salaries or end tenure.
“We should not have teachers who are making more than their principals, or principals making as much as a superintendent, I just don’t think that that’s right in a system that doesn’t have unlimited funds.”
If either are taken off the table, Sheppard said that the district should get a waiver from the state for the Taylor law restrictions, also known as the Public Employees Fair Employment Act, which governs public employee unions statewide, and then join Superintendent Terry Dade in union negotiations.
Adam Urbanski, president of Rochester’s teachers union, called all these ideas bad.
“$30 million in a nearly billion dollar budget is 3%. If you had a 3% problem in your household budget you would figure out a way to do it without adversely affecting your children,” said Urbanski. “They’re also an overreach by the Board of Education because the matter of tenure is state law and that would require legislation.”
Urbanski said the union paused its current contract negotiations with the district in light of the budget shortfall and is compiling suggestions from teachers for Superintendent Terry Dade who has promised to present budget cuts at a meeting on November 12.
Sheppard said that she realizes most of these ideas would take a concerted effort and months if not years to attempt it and she is unphased by any potential opposition to it.
“We can’t fake the funk anymore,” said Sheppard, who added she could have chosen more options. “Even if people don’t agree with the options that I’ve set up as routes that we should take they can’t deny the observations that I’ve put out here they’re backed up by the distinguished educator who is independent and from the state, they’ve identified these things too.”