Rochester City Schools Deserve Better Than Austerity Budget Passed in Albany

For students struggling with poverty or food insecurity, our schools are more than simply a place to learn. They are where they get their meals, access health care, and express themselves through art and recreation. In this current pandemic, we are becoming even more aware of the role our schools play as a social safety net for our youth.

The announcement of Superintendent Terry Dade’s departure — which couldn’t have come at a more difficult time — has left many in the community feeling demoralized or betrayed. This is understandable. But the problems in our district weren’t created by one person, and they won’t be fixed by one person. Decades of underinvestment have left our schools and neighborhoods in a vulnerable state, and the latest austerity budget passed by Governor Andrew Cuomo threatens to undo the progress that has been made and leave our district in an even deeper hole than before.

The $35 million emergency loan extended to the district will help us get through the current school year, but it’s ultimately a stop-gap measure. Our public schools need sustained and equitable funding to guarantee the kind of education our children deserve, especially as they work through the trauma and stress created by this pandemic.

Despite receiving $1.1 billion in federal aid for education, Governor Cuomo chose to cut that exact amount from the state budget, leaving us with flat funding. While the funding may be flat, we know costs are not. Rochester — and schools across the state — will now have to make even bigger cuts at a time when they can least afford to do so. Just as devastating, the budget includes only a $10 million increase for mental health support and trauma-informed education, when we know students will need additional support once this crisis is over.

The enacted budget also gives the Governor new powers to make cuts or other budget adjustments throughout the calendar year. At a press briefing last week Cuomo threatened a 50% cut to education during the first adjustment period. Since wealthier districts have property taxes to fund their schools, this will target our most vulnerable students, balancing the budget on the backs of Black, Brown and immigrant children.

Let me be perfectly clear: inequality is a choice we make every day. We choose to provide certain students with a quality education, while denying Black, Brown, and low-income children of this most basic right. We choose to hand out giant tax breaks to corporations and real estate interests, while leaving our public schools and housing to crumble. New York State crowns new billionaires each year. Right now we have 112 of them. Yet in a moment of crisis, we don’t even have the courage to tax them. The runaway inequality we see in our state and city is a choice, not an economic inevitability. And our students will bear the consequences of these decisions for years to come.

Like in any crisis, there are people ready to exploit the situation for their own gain. Privatizers and charter school operators will come into town, making lofty promises they can’t keep, and try to steer even more funds away from our public schools. This has already happened in places like New Orleans and Newark and San Juan. And in all of those cities, it’s been an unmitigated disaster.

The beauty of our public schools is they take every student, regardless of ability, income, language, or need. They are a concrete expression of our highest qualities as people. Let’s honor that by protecting it.

Edited version appears in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

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