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Throwing money at city schools just can't fix the problem

Rochester Business Journal
July 17, 2009
Let's get one thing straight at the outset: The business community of Rochester cares deeply about the quality of public school education in our area. We care because the students of today will be the work force of tomorrow. And if our region is to prosper in the global economy, we need a well-trained, highly educated work force that is more than competent in language skills, science, mathematics and other disciplines.

But the plain truth is that business also must care about the cost of providing that education. It's not, as is too often simplistically portrayed, a matter of greed, of business owners not willing to part with their hard-earned cash. It's that public education is funded by taxpayer dollars. And when those taxes get too high-as many of us believe they already have-our economy suffers. Business can't afford to add jobs; people move away to places with lower taxes and more job opportunities. Suddenly, the quality of life we've long enjoyed and taken for granted is in danger of disappearing.

All of this brings me to a discussion of the City School District and its budget issues. There has been a lot of news out of the district relating to costs-a $699 million budget approved by a 4-3 school board vote, a $50 million budget gap that necessitated cuts including more than 200 teacher layoffs. These numbers have been used by some people to argue that in attempting to control costs, the district's leadership is shortchanging its students.

But I believe some of these numbers have been taken out of context, even manipulated. Furthermore, there are many other numbers available to show that Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard is on the correct and essential path to both controlling costs and improving our struggling city schools.

Consider, if you will, the following statistics:

Rochester has-and has consistently had-the lowest student-to-teacher ratio of any of the major urban districts in New York. At 10.8 students per teacher, it's also lower than the ratios in other urban districts, including Atlanta and Chicago. While the teachers who may lose their jobs certainly face a serious personal challenge, the cuts are not large enough to push this ratio to dangerous levels with unmanageable class sizes.

The teachers' union continues to argue that classroom positions should be untouched and that cuts should come from the central office. Brizard acknowledges that more administrator cuts are needed. He has eliminated more than 100 positions from the central office but says that still leaves the district with far more administrators than are warranted for the size of the student population. In fact, the Buffalo and Syracuse districts manage more students with fewer administrators.

Here's another point you don't typically hear in a discussion of teacher employment. District figures show that since 2005, the number of teachers has risen by about 200 while student enrollment has fallen by about 1,000. Even with increased educational mandates, this makes no sense, and it clearly defies common business sense. What it reflects, however, is a formula in the city teachers' union contract that sets staffing requirements per school.

That contract, by the way, expired June 30. But because of the Triborough Amendment to the state's Taylor Law, which keeps a public employee contract in effect until a new agreement is reached, the teachers received a 4.1 percent raise, effective July 1.

Here's another frustrating statistic: Rochester spends almost twice as much per special education pupil as districts including Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta. Despite that, Rochester's special education students continue to perform significantly below the state average on standardized tests for this group. What's driving that spending? Again, a ratio of eight students for every teacher, well below the U.S. average of 16 to 1.

I don't mean to be singling out teachers or implying that most are not doing a good job despite challenging circumstances. Nor am I suggesting that all public schools be run with the bottom-line mentality of business. But at some point we have to recognize that spending alone has not resolved and will not resolve our educational issues. Furthermore, our struggling regional economy means we can no longer afford to spend more than we have. At some point, all our public employees-including those in the City School District-will need to understand that.

When Brizard defines the district's educational mission, he cites three core values: achievement, equity and accountability, and offers solid metrics for success. Since he became superintendent in January 2008, student achievement has shown progress. Test performance is improved, and graduation rates are rising-although at 54 percent they still have a long way to go to be acceptable.

Brizard also points to work toward equity, ensuring that each school gets its fair share of resources.

Accountability includes finding ways to rein in costs while still ensuring quality. Brizard and his staff have a plan that many people in the business community believe will succeed. Let's give that plan a chance. Let's give him-and our students-the support they need and deserve so our entire community can benefit.

Sandra Parker is president and CEO of the Rochester Business Alliance Inc. Contact her at SandyP@RBAlliance.com.

07/17/09 (C) Rochester Business Journal


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