Editorial -- School board’s next task Redesign the system

We wish the Rochester School Board could have declared "Mission accomplished" on Tuesday after its members officially voted to cut $9.3 million from the budget for the 2009-10 academic year. That vote was the culmination of four months of debate, number-crunching, public outcry, tears and even some semi-spontaneous singing, and although this wasn’t a moment to celebrate, it was worthy of at least a deep sigh of relief.

 But there’s no rest for the weary – and right now, board members must feel as if they’re sitting on a three-legged stool in a boxing ring. They’ve survived Round One, but they’re battered and bruised, and in the opposing corner sits a fresh opponent — a $10 million deficit for the 2010-11 school year.

 The good news is that a lot could change in the next 12 months. Long-term budget projections are an inexact science, and we hope the Legislature and the federal government deliver some unexpected financial help to our K-12 education system.

 We can’t count on that, however, so Rochester needs to learn from the recent budget-cutting process. And on Tuesday, the board gave strong indications that it is ready to move in a new direction.

 Members Sandra Solstis, Breanna Bly and Cris Fischer spoke at some length about the need to increase the involvement of district staff much earlier in the process, and to rely less on suggestions from the community. Bly, speaking of a 6,000-item list of proposed budget cuts from the public, said "We should be done with that process. It was important in 2001, and it was important that we duplicate that process this time, but it’s reached the end of its usefulness."


 Fischer was more blunt: "I want to see us try something different next time."

 We agree. Public input is important, but we’ve reached the point of diminishing return.  From now on, district staff should set the parameters of the discussion. The general public should still be able to make phone calls, send e-mails and deliver short speeches that express their wishes and concerns, but not every suggestion should be treated as worthy of serious consideration.

 Speaking of ideas that don’t warrant further discussion, we strongly urge the board to nip some clearly bad ideas in the bud right now. A four-day school week isn’t remotely feasible, and we can’t imagine financial circumstances so dire as to warrant the closing of Friedell Middle School, one of the district’s best success stories. We’re glad these ideas were set aside in this round of cuts, and we hope the district doesn’t spend another minute considering them in the next round of cuts future.

 Finally, we’re pleased with the board’s acknowledgement that, as was the case in 2001, this round of cuts hit K-6 teachers and their students especially hard. Bly, in fact, made a rather stunning admission: High schools are escaping relatively unscathed largely because the board hasn’t figured out how to reorganize them without limiting students’ elective options. As a result, the worst pain many juniors and seniors will feel this year will be an increase in their parking and athletic fees.

 Such inequities must end. We can’t keep cramming more of our youngest students into each classroom. We can’t keep trimming the clerical staff and janitors who are, in many ways, the backbones of our schools. We can’t keep looking for nickels and dimes – we’ve spent them all.

 What happened Tuesday was the application of a tourniquet. The board stopped the bleeding and bought itself some time, which is exactly what it needed to do. But now comes the hard part: a complete re-thinking of how we educate students in Rochester and how we pay for that education.

 There’s the bell. Round Two has begun.


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