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In the eye of the storm

Superintendent Manuel Rivera on the city school budget


Again this spring, the Rochester school district has been wrestling with a serious budget gap, with expenses increasing faster than revenue. Again this spring, the district --- like school districts throughout New YorkState --- has had to put together its budget without knowing how much it will get from the state, its largest single revenue source.

            And once again, the district is under fire from city officials, who insist that the district spends extravagantly.

            The district's proposed 2004-05 budget includes staff and program cuts. One school will be closed, and Superintendent Manuel Rivera says that in late fall, he'll propose more. At the same time, the district is under pressure to boost achievement, as Rochester's test scores continue to be the lowest of any district in the county. To change that, it is trying to lower class sizes, improve instruction, and find ways to help failing students.

            Rivera is talking with area college and university presidents about creating small schools on their campuses for city students. This year, the district launched a pilot program called Dare to Care, selecting about 40 poorly achieving students to receive intensive assistance, including mentoring and counseling. But late last week, Rivera added that program to his hit list as he looked for an additional $11 million in cuts.

            The new cuts reflect an anticipated $7 million in city aid that Rivera wanted but probably won't get, and $4.4 million to pay school nurses. In the past, MonroeCounty provided the nurses, but the CountyLegislature has cut that funding. School-district officials insist that nurses are the county's responsibility, and Rivera had resisted putting their cost in the budget, fearing that it would become a permanent district responsibility. He went as far as threatening not to hold summer school, rather than absorb the cost of the nurses or operate school without them.

            But late last week, Rivera added the cost to the budget and made more cuts. Among Rivera's other recommendations: reducing the number of librarians and music teachers, reducing "early-intervention" programs to help younger students who are falling behind, and increasing some class sizes.

                City Council will vote on the school budget on Tuesday, June 22. It will hold a public hearing on that  budget at 4 p.m. Wednesday, June 16, and on the combined school and city budget at 7 o'clock that night.

            In an interview last week, Rivera discussed the district's budget problems and city officials' criticisms. An edited version of that interview follows.

City: You're counting on a $29 million increase in state aid. What happens if you don't get it?

            Rivera: At that point, we're on defibrillators and we're in deep crisis. That's where you have to seriously consider things like shutting down two weeks early. That might violate state law and not meet the 180-day requirement, but I honestly think that's where we would be in that kind of environment.

            City: Are you pretty confident of the $29 million?

            Rivera: Yeah. I think it's going to be in that range. I think it's a mistake to assume that we'd be getting substantially more than that. I don't think we can expect that.

            City: So then you have to make up the $7 million that the city is cutting.

            Rivera: And the nurses. When I came out with the threat of closing summer schools, in all honesty, a couple of days later, I felt like I was standing out there by myself. You had the mayor and the county executive faulting me for this. How cleverly they're able to shift the burden onto the school district.

City: The district's enrollment has gone down, and yet the district's costs and expenses keep going up. Why?

            Rivera: We have five or six different kinds of bargaining units. And there are certain increases that we don't even control. There are increases in transportation and increases in fuel costs. Health insurance has gone up. What really hit us this year was the change in the retirement rate, like a $9 million increase.

            City: The mayor says you had no business settling for a 4.4 percent raise for teachers. He says he went to arbitration, and ended up giving fire and police employees a 3 percent raise. If the district had kept the raise for teachers to 3 percent, it would have saved the school district millions of dollars.

            Rivera: We have within the contract a benchmarking formula, which was approved in the last contract [under former Superintendent Clifford Janey], before I got here. Janey said: "We want to be able to maintain our workforce. We want to be competitive in MonroeCounty." And what you do is, you take the top third of the districts in MonroeCounty and you look at the average salary increase. We went through the benchmarking formula and settled on 4.45, but only after we agreed to some other things.

            Our teachers are asking for more dedicated time for professional development. We agreed to a commitment of 40 hours of unpaid time devoted to professional development. We agreed that teachers would not be paid extra to go to parent-teacher conferences.

            We agreed that health benefits would be pro-rated for part-time people. If you were a part-time teacher in the old agreement --- if you taught one course --- you had full coverage. We did away with that. That was a huge savings for us. We had significant savings in the contract.

            The same thing with administrators. We increased the amount of time they work and the length of the year. We did away with additional pay for folks leading in-school programs immediately after school.

            There was a lot of movement, I felt, and good will on the part of the unions. And 4.45 was a bargain. Because it keeps us competitive. We're still not the highest paid in MonroeCounty.

            The other thing is, we want to be able to attract people. We still have trouble finding highly-qualified math teachers, science teachers, special-ed teachers, bilingual-ed teachers. I know people come for reasons beyond salaries, but it is important, especially for the younger folks who are just starting off, to have something that's at least competitive.

            Right now, we have a dynamic young African-American counselor who was being heavily recruited by Greece, which offered $10,000 more than we could pay him. RIT offered him a job; other people have offered him jobs. And I'm scrambling around; I've met with him twice in the past week just trying to keep him.

            That's just one example. I don't want to lose any more of our good people --- especially some of our people of color who have grown up in this community --- to some of the suburban districts because they happen to be able to pay better than we can.

City: The mayor has also said that the district has increased its staff over the past several years.

            Rivera: An immediate example comes to mind. We received class-size reduction money from the state; I think it was $5-$6 million. Right away, we have to add teachers to get those smaller class sizes.

            Then there are specialists [who've been helping support the district's focus on literacy and math]. They're in classrooms, they act as coaches, they do demonstration lessons, they work directly with kids, they go classroom to classroom. The principal can do some of that, but now you've got instructional-support people working directly with the teachers, a lot of whom really benefit from that, because they're new.

            City: Critics might say: "Wait a minute. You've had mentors for teachers for a long time. Now you're bringing in a whole new support program. And yet we hire teachers who are supposed to be qualified to teach reading, or math, or whatever. Those teachers should just teach. We shouldn't need all these extra layers to help the teachers do what they were hired to do in the first place."

            Rivera: The fact of the matter is that in any business or company, there's going to be continued growth or development. I'm not going to sit here and say that colleges and universities have the most ideal programs and are pumping out the best-trained people ready to come into classrooms, because they're not. That's where there needs to be some work done, in teacher preparation programs in higher education. That's where it really needs to start.

            In the meantime, some of our new teachers have not had urban experience. Some could benefit from some strategies on better classroom management. Some may not be familiar with the kind of reading or math programs that we have in place.

            I think back to when I was a teacher and how naïve I was about certain things --- and not necessarily the most knowledgeable. To be a high-quality educator, it takes years to develop your own craft, if you will, and we need to continue to support them.

City: The Center for Governmental Research has said that the district keeps adding programs and doesn't their effectiveness.

            Rivera: I agree that that's a need that the district has. I'm not going to say that we don't do that. We did evaluate our America's Choice program, we did a major evaluation. In my budget, I had recommended that we set aside an additional $150,000 to advance this objective of getting formal evaluations done for key programs. Whether or not we use it to hire a full-time researcher or contract with other organizations to do these evaluations, that is yet to be determined.

            But wherever we make sizeable investments --- extended learning programs, summer school, Dare to Care --- we want to have formal evaluations. And, quite frankly, I think there's a lot of validity to third-party evaluations.

            City: The mayor has complained that the district changes its budget format from year to year, making it hard for him to track expenses.

            Rivera: In all honesty, I can't fault the mayor, in the sense that we have made some adjustments because we're improving systems here. But we have a new software system, and we're tracking personnel data differently. And we're going to be able to meet the city's and the mayor's needs, and there'll be consistent formatting. But I can understand some of the frustrations coming out.

City: The district will now pay for nurses. It pays for food service, for transportation. Why don't you just say: "Look, we're in the business of education. Services like transportation --- the county has a transportation authority. School nurses: the county provides health and human services. Those services are not education. We've got to pare everything down to educating children. We hire teachers; we don't hire all these other things."

            Rivera: In a perfect world, where all of your community institutions and organizations are working together, something like that would be possible. But it's not a perfect world here. For the Republican majority of the CountyLegislature to vote to cut nurses in the city schools is the worst kind of example of a failure to collaborate. It's just beyond me.

            Even if I were to step out there tomorrow and say: "Health-care providers, you pick up the health-care needs of our kids," and "RTS, you pick up transportation," and "other organizations, you pick up food service --- RIT, I hear you do a good job with that" --- even if I were to go out and do that, it just wouldn't happen. Not in this climate.

            You need leaders to come together to look at all the resources we have in this community and how we, combining our resources, can better serve children and families and think differently than we have over the last 100 years. There's got to be a better way.

            We need a leadership that recognizes that supporting the city and city children is good for this entire county. It's not going to be helpful to foster an us-versus-them kind of situation.

            The fact of the matter is that many of our children belong to families that are eligible for free and reduced lunches. In many cases, many of our children, when they're sick, may not have a primary-care physician. They may end up at the emergency room.

            Every time a child's sick and makes a visit to a hospital by an ambulance, it's something like $750. You take away nurses who provide a lot of primary care for kids, and it's going to impact the county.

            If we've got programs and services where we're getting better results in city schools, people ought to be coming on board about that. People ought to be saying: "Wow. If this Dare to Care program, which is taking 40 kids and making a difference even for three-quarters of them, and that's going to reduce the dropout rate, and that's going to reduce what we have to pay to run Monroe County Jail...."

            If people could look at more graduates getting out of Rochester schools and meeting standards, how that can contribute to the overall economy, people might think differently.

            We had a guy here from Microsoft, which is considering a partnership with us, and he said: "The difference between a high-school graduate and someone who doesn't graduate from high school is the loss of $540,000 income over the course of his or her life."

            We've got to look at supporting education as a community-wide reform strategy. It's not about school-district reform. It's about changing the community. We want better schools, we want more graduates, we want a more qualified and educated workforce. We want to keep those who go to college out of state; we want to bring them back; we want a thriving community.

            And the way to support that is to support not just schooling in the sense of five and a half hours a day, but the education of kids, which is a 24/7 enterprise.

            What can we provide for our young people as a community, quality academic programs for kids after school and Saturdays, recreational activities? I was on a panel with the superintendent from Penfield, and she herself started talking about the inequities between schools. She said: "At my high school, we have over 90 teams. We spend over $400,000 on sports. In the city schools, on average, you've got about 20 teams and spend about $59,000 on sports."

            These things make a difference in the lives of kids. You're talking about character development, team-building skills. You're talking about structured opportunities. Sports are a means of developing one's character and knowledge base. So when I talk about fiscal equity, it is to put in place additional academic programs for kids who need them.

            We've got kids who love to come to SaturdaySchool. We ran schools during Christmas vacation, and kids came. They came because they have nothing to do at home. They were happy to be there.

            And add to that, what can we as a community do to support parents? There are some basic things we can do for kids who might not have structure at home. Having an adult mentor or an advocate in their life would make a difference.

City: The mayor said all along that he would recommend that the city provide $7 million less than you wanted, but you put the $7 million in your budget anyway. He was clearly frustrated by that.

            Rivera: Well, yes, the mayor did indicate to me that I should have a contingency, but I put my budget together a month or two later, and I said, "Bill, our numbers are serious. We have a huge gap. I need the $126.1 million from the city, and that's going to be in my budget."

            So just as he shared with me, I shared with him. I need $126.1 million, and that's what I recommended. And I went through that with him before I presented the budget publicly. And so I've been pretty consistent.

            It's the same thing with the nurses. They're saying I should have budgeted for nurses. What am I, a fool? I knew that the minute I go out and do that, I'm adding $4.5 million forever. I'm not an idiot here.