by CLAIRE LABROSA
(ROCHESTER NY--) Back-to-school brings with it some bitter lessons this year. The Rochester City School District is on life support. Decades of redlining, underfunding, white flight, privatization, and societal neglect have left our district, my beloved district, in ruins. The vultures continue to circle around what public funding is left to be picked off. And what remains are the most vulnerable, the most deserving of our defense, the children who have been abandoned by their city and their state.
Our small city in Western New York has some of the worst statistics in the country. Rochester has the 3rd highest rate of childhood poverty and the most segregated school system in the nation. Just next door, in a nearby suburb called Penfield, poverty rates are in the single digits. 90% of RCSD students are Black and brown, whereas neighboring Penfield serves students that are 91% White. Year after year the statistics get worse, the poverty worse, the outlook worse for our students. And yet, nothing has changed.
2019 brought devastating news. After years of unfunded mandates, and fancy footwork with book-keeping to rob Peter to pay Paul, the bottom fell out. The district announced a $60 million deficit in the Fall of 2019. Two weeks before the holiday break, after weeks of walkouts and protests led by students, educators, and community members, nearly 200 positions were cut.
Students came back after break with drastically reduced supports. Reading teachers, intervention teachers, support staff were cut mid-year in a district which had made a commitment to have all students reading by 3rd grade just a few years prior. Currently only 19% of the students are meeting state reading proficiency levels. As the district announced these devastating layoffs, our Mayor, Lovely Warren, traveled to Albany--not to advocate for the dire needs of our students, but to sit on a panel at a charter school conference.
Then, a chaotic Spring shutdown. Students were forced home and teachers desperately attempted to reach their students remotely, as nearly half the students had no access to a computer or a reliable internet connection.
The district laid off another hundred educators in June. Five schools and several programs were shuttered in one year. The programs and schools included the Young Mother’s program which assisted pregnant students in helping them graduate high school and find the support they needed for themselves and their newborn children, and the Rochester International Academy, a program which served recent refugees, fostering their sense of safety and security after an often traumatic journey to our city.
The coronavirus seems to have brought with it the final blow. As we see a macabre scene play out on the national level, with a President who refuses to do anything to stop the virus's destructive march across the country, we see here in New York State how the same is being done to our public schools. With the Governor’s recently-announced plan to withhold 20% of the budget, we may see the first of New York State’s public school districts fall, and truly not be able to be resuscitated.
The Rochester City School District now stands to lose 30% of its budget in a single calendar year. The district is on life support, and it should be a canary in the coal mine for our sister districts across New York State. We have no reserves, we have no lifeline, and no one is coming to save us. Our Governor and our legislatures pass the blame on to the Federal government. Even while public support for taxing the wealthy has never been higher, our elected leaders do not have the courage to do so. While nearly 76% of Americans say it should be a top priority for all children to receive a quality education, there seems to be no political will to save the children in the city of Rochester, or the rest of the state for that matter.
We need political courage now more than ever to tax the ultra-wealthy and fully fund public schools. Our district, and the 26,000 students it serves, are depending on it.
CLAIRE LABROSA is a guest contributor. She works as an educator in the Rochester City School District and is a member of RORE, the rank-and-file caucus of RCSD union members.