Cathy Nathan: Approval of referendum will help keep Rochester schools strong

On Nov. 3, Rochester voters will be asked to respond to a question that's critical for our community's future. The question is a simple one: Will you vote yes to help maintain quality public schools that help keep our community strong?

As the parent of a Rochester public school freshman and a recent graduate, I urge you to vote yes. Rochester's schools have prepared my children very well for every opportunity and challenge that has come their way. As a parent advocate, I have watched administration and school board decision-making closely for many years. I have read many public documents and budget reports that gave me a solid understanding of how our schools operate and the challenges that they face.

My up-close experiences have shown me that a failed referendum would have devastating and long-term consequences for our schools, our children and our community.

What would a yes vote mean for you? The property tax impact is modest — just 40 cents a day for a $160,000 home, the Rochester average. That 40 cents a day would maintain the class sizes, quality education programs and courses that we have, and it would help keep talented teachers and staff. Most importantly, that 40 cents a day will give our district budget stability for four years, a chance to evaluate current programs and the ability to discuss and plan for future priorities.

A yes vote will provide benefits for more than just the people who occupy our school buildings. Strong schools are the foundation of strong communities. Strong schools support our local economy by providing well-trained workers for local businesses, by helping attract new residents to the area, and by boosting local property values.


How did we get here? Sadly, this funding crisis has been brewing for over a decade. The state provides 81.2 percent of Rochester's school funding. During the past decade, that funding simply did not keep pace with inflation and the actual costs necessary to educate our children. Another 12.8 percent of school funding comes from local property taxes, in what's called an operating levy, and those rates are determined by the school board and by Rochester voters.

The last school operating referendum passed in Rochester was in 2006. As a result, Rochester's school revenue from voter-approved local property taxes is well below the state average, lower than many districts in the Big 9, and lower than the average of the top 10 largest districts in the state. At the same time, Rochester is the seventh largest district in the state.

A yes vote on Nov. 3 would bring this portion of our school funding up to the state average.

Our public schools have struggled to maintain quality programs and staff through many years of insufficient state and local funding. Since 2001, Rochester Public Schools have made $28 million in budget cuts throughout 15 years of hard choices and eliminated opportunities. Instead of asking for more in taxes, the school district spent down its budget reserve, but that account has reached its allowable minimum balance.

If the referendum does not pass, our schools will need to make $14.5 million in additional budget cuts during the next four years. These additional cuts will have a long-lasting impact on our schools, our kids and our community.

Students are not one size fits all, and these budget cuts threaten to eliminate staff, programs and services that help differentiate learning to help all students grow. Larger class sizes will notsupport meeting individual student needs. The loss of teachers and reading and math specialists will nothelp students master these basic skill areas. Fewer opportunities in technical career courses and Advanced Placement courses will nothelp students become better-trained workers or prepare for college. Once a program is cut from the Rochester school budget, it rarely returns.

Please know a yes vote isn't a blanket approval for everything that happens in every school classroom. Can Rochester schools still be improved? Absolutely! But our schools cannot think about real improvements, innovations and best practices when they are in budget-cutting crisis mode.

Four more years of deep budget cuts will guarantee just that. We have all seen the impact of this financial stress for long enough now, and our children and our community deserve better.


A yes vote will help keep Rochester and its schools strong, competitive, and a great place to live and learn in the future. A yes vote will help our youngest citizens become tomorrow's good neighbors, well-educated workers and visionary leaders. Please vote yes on Nov. 3 and help us build strong schools and a strong community.

Cathy Nathan is a member of the Alliance for Strong Rochester Public Schools.

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