Rochester schools Superintendent Terry Dade wants to reconfigure parts of the district. That would include creating two new prekindergarten programs.
Dade said that 3 out of 4 kids who go to the district’s pre-K program stay in the district, but only half of the students in community-based pre-Ks stay. Many of those kids leave for charter schools, which the district pays for, or private institutions, said Dade.
To change this, Dade wants to absorb the community-based programs and others sprinkled throughout the district into two underused elementary schools. The district pays for a chunk of both programs, and Dade said that combining them could save about $4.5 million.
“What I’ve seen in other urban systems is the magic answer is in pre-K," Dade said. "That’s why you see so many divisions moving to universal pre-K because they know that is the answer. If you can engage early and keep families within your school throughout, you can reverse that trend in enrollment.”
Board of Education Vice President Cynthia Elliott expressed skepticism about taking pre-K away from community-based programs.
“Many community-based programs don’t pay the same salaries as those teachers get here in the district nor the benefits,” said Elliott. “So I would have to look to see how that was more cost-effective.”
Elliott works for Baden Street Settlement, which houses a community-based Universal Pre-K program.
School board Commissioner Beatriz Lebron also expressed concerns about how much it would cost to retrofit other schools for prekindergarten education.
Dade also wants to combine several high schools and middle schools on the Franklin and Monroe campuses. Each campus would have an upper school for grades 9 through 12 and a lower school for seventh and eighth grades. He said these changes could save more than $3 million. Dade said the move also has to do with accountability for failing schools.
“We want to give more of our schools a chance at success and getting out of receivership, so splitting them into two, an upper/lower, provides that opportunity for our students at the Franklin campus,” said Dade.
All of the proposed changes are subject to school board approval.
Dade also addressed the first of a two-part report on the district’s finances released Thursday by the state comptroller’s office.
The comptroller’s investigation was prompted when the district first learned of its estimated $65 million budget shortfall in September.
In the report, Deputy Comptroller Elliott Auerbach said the district’s remaining budget deficit is $40 million instead of the district's estimate of roughly $27 million, even after cost-cutting measures that included the layoffs of 150 teachers and staff.
Auerbach said there was no malfeasance found in this discrepancy. He also said things like unemployment insurance for those who were laid off played a role in increasing the shortfall.
“It’s probably just an underestimate of their day-to-day operations that have been impacted that has created this larger number,” said Auerbach. “Without severe budget cuts or short-term borrowing or outside intervention, it looks like the district is not going to have enough cash to meet their financial obligations by year end.”
Auerbach found that the three largest areas of district overspending were transportation, substitutes, and charter school tuition.
Dade thanked the comptroller’s office for looking through their books but said that much of the report’s conclusion is based on outdated information.
“The part one results are based on the Nov. 12 information that I provided the board and community at large,” said Dade.
Since then, beyond the layoffs, Dade has sought at least $20 million in additional state aid and found unused grant and title funds to narrow the gap.
He said the district will ensure the comptroller's office has up-to-date information before the second part of the report is released in the spring.