NYS budget director on RCSD issues: Laws already exist to get district the help it needs

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — A top state official has called the Rochester City School District’s fiscal health “untenable” and says there are laws in the books to address “the chronic mismanagement and under-performance facing the school district.”

These strong words came from the New York State Budget Director Robert Mujica in a letter to Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren and the State Education Department interim commissioner Tuesday. This all comes as a formal response to the district’s $30 million budget shortfall.

While the letter offers up legal examples of how and why the city and state education department should intervene, it did not mention anything regarding a possible state takeover of the district, or anything about the city severing financial ties with the district, as Mayor Warren previously proposed.

The budget director offered some “immediate” recommendations for the district, city and state education department to pursue as they collectively work to sort through the $30 million budget shortfall, including:

  • Assist with the Comptroller’s AuditThe Office of the State Comptroller announced they will begin an audit. SED must stand-by and be ready to assist the Comptroller.
  • Initiate a SED Investigation: Under §308 of Education Law, the Commissioner has the power and duty to begin processes or proceedings to enforce any provision of Education Law or other law relevant to school districts. The Commissioner should immediately investigate public allegations of mismanagement and fraud.
  • Investigate and, if Necessary, Remove School Board Members and School Officers: Under §306 of Education Law, the Commissioner of Education is empowered to remove school board members and school officers  for a willful violation or neglect of duty under the Education Law or willfully disobeyed a decision, order, rule or regulation of the Board of Regents or Commissioner of Education.
  • Immediately Reappoint a Distinguished Educator: The Commissioner should reappoint a Distinguished Educator for Rochester pursuant to Education Law §211-C. Rochester’s previous Distinguished Educator resigned in June, 2019 and a replacement has not yet been appointed.
  • Immediately Place Schools in Receivership: Rochester City School District currently has 14 schools designated under §211-F of Education Law. The Commissioner could use her authority to place all eligible schools into independent receivership to ensure accountability and turnaround in schools that have been struggling for years. 

According to Mujica, all of these aforementioned recommendations can be pursued now under current law, and he says the actions should begin being implemented immediately.

The fourth bullet point in the recommendations is a callback to earlier this year. In May, the state-appointed distinguished educator, Jaimie Aquino left his position to pursue another professional opportunity.

Until his departure, Aquino would provide reports and recommendations for the district, and worked as a liaison from the state level in the local district. The budget director is now recommending that a new distinguished educator be appointed.

A statement from the New York State Department of Education was released Tuesday in response to the letter, saying in part:

“Clearly, the revelations and allegations surfacing over the past few weeks regarding the handling of RCSD’s finances are deeply troubling. The Department and Board look forward to findings of the Comptroller’s audit and conveyed to the Board and Superintendent Dade that they must take immediate action to address the district’s financial deficiencies. Further, we stand ready to partner with law enforcement agencies in any investigations the appropriate authorities feel are warranted.”

Emily DeSantis, Department Spokesperson

A statement on behalf of the city was also released Tuesday by communications director Justin Roj:

“Mayor Warren has been consistent in calling on the State to act on behalf of Rochester’s children. We agree with the call from the State Budget Director – and the rulings from the State Supreme Court and Appellate Division – that the Department of Education must take action now to protect the short term health of our city’s families and taxpayers. However, the Mayor still agrees with the State’s Distinguished Educator who called for a ‘total reset’ of the system. While short term fixes that the State Budget Director proposed are important to protect Rochester residents, we must continue to pursue real State legislation to allow our children to reach their full potential.”

Justin Roj, City of Rochester Communications Director

Check back with News 8 WROC as we will continue to update this developing story, including reactions from Tuesday night’s school board meeting with the auditing committee.

Full letter from the New York State Budget Director:

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