by DARIEN LAMEN
(WXIR-Rochester) After over an hour of debate, the Rochester City School Board voted 5-2 Thursday to close two elementary schools (#44 and 57) and replace them with standalone Pre-K centers.
The decision is expected to result in 400-500 Pre-K slots being shifted from community-based organizations (CBOs) to the RCSD, in a major shake-up to the city's nationally-recognized Pre-K program.
Superintendent Terry Dade first floated the idea a little over a month ago. He has said that Rochester is an outlier in the large number of students served by community-based organizations versus in-house, and that students who attend Pre-K in the RCSD are far more likely to continue on into Kindergarten in the district.
On Thursday, Dade reiterated that argument, saying it was the best tool the district currently has for reversing the loss of elementary school students to charters.
"It wasn't just that I wanted to figure out something neat to do with these buildings," Dade said ahead of Thursday's vote.
"My fear was, looking at our history of what happens to those buildings... they get turned over to charters. Until we really have funding to make new magnet schools and the like, this was something I thought we could do to benefit the district," Date said.
Leading the charge against the superintendent’s proposal Thursday was Board Vice President Cynthia Elliott.
During the meeting, Elliott introduced an amendment to go ahead with the school closures, but to leave the Pre-K program alone. That amendment was voted down.
"To say that if the UPK and EPK students, if they were in the Rochester City School District buildings, that their tenure in the district [would be] greater, is insufficient rationale given...all of the services and positive attributes that occur in the community-based organizations," Elliott said, asking why parents would want their children to come to a "failing school district."
Board President Van White shot back, arguing that the Superintendent’s proposal was forward-thinking, and that the money saved through school closures would help make up the costs of offering additional wraparound services at RCSD Pre-K sites.
"It's about time this district had the confidence to articulate that we can do things as well or better than anybody else," White said, adding that the Board's job was not to protect CBOs.
However, critics say RCSD administration has been short on details when it comes to how they would "shift priorities" to pay for wraparound services in the new Pre-K centers, or how they would attract and retain new students.
Commissioner Beatriz LeBron was the second of 2 "no" votes Thursday. She questioned whether the district would be able to fill 500 new slots, given the fact that hundreds currently remain unfilled.
"About 280 seats are currently open, and when we asked the Superintendent how are we going to fill seats...I was not satisfied with Superintendent Terry Dade's answer that 'he's competitive,'" Lebron said. "I would like to see an actual plan."
But in the end, the "ayes" had it.
And as multiple board members pointed out during the lengthy debate, this decision is likely to be just one of many dramatic changes the district will be considering in the coming months as budget season gets underway.
DARIEN LAMEN is news producer/director for WXIR Community Radio. He can reached at email@example.com