ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Do public schools exist to benefit students or the people who work in them?
That’s a very legitimate question to apply to the troubled Rochester, New York school district.
The district clearly has academic problems. In 2013 only four percent of eighth-graders were proficient in math and only six percent in English. In 2012 the graduation rate was a miserable 43.4 percent.
The district also has serious financial issues. It was facing a $44 million budget deficit headed into the 2012-13 school year. That shortfall prompted the layoff of 56 teachers, one year after the layoff of approximately 700 teachers.
Given all of this, one might expect Rochester school officials to spend every available dime to help kids get up to par academically. But instead they chose to pay themselves way too much money.
An incredible total of 314 school district employees made more than $100,000 in straight salary in 2012-13, according to SeeThroughNY.net. That’s up from 292 making six figures the year before, and 258 in 2011.
So the budget deficit keeps getting bigger, student test scores continue to decline, yet more and more administrators crack the six-figure salary mark every year.
Their combined salaries in 2012-13 equaled more than $37 million, which was almost enough to cover the school’s entire budget deficit! Why were all those teachers laid off?
It’s amazing that the parents of this district are not in the streets protesting this horrific situation.
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Inflated salaries were not the only questionable expenses for the district in 2012-13. District employees also spent $93,226 at hotels throughout the U.S. and $32,630 at travel agencies. The district’s restaurant tab came to $103,590, the legal services bill was $155,548 and the entertainment/recreation tab came to $134,961.
EAGnews has spent the last few weeks inspecting Rochester school district financial records as part of our ongoing “Where Your School Dollars Go” series. We have inspected records from several dozen districts around the nation and will continue to do so, in an effort to promote transparency and accountability in public schools, and encourage local journalists and citizens to keep close track of how tax dollars are spent.
The figures we came across only represent a portion of the full amount of money spent by Rochester schools in 2012-13.
Who’s getting rich while the students suffer?
Unfortunately we lack the space to list all of the names of the Rochester school employees who made more than $100,000 in 2012-13.
But we can give you the Top 20, all of whom work at the administrative level.
At the very top are Larry Ellison, principal, $223,868; Bolgen Vargas, superintendent, $201,000; Bonnie Atkins, principal, $180,243; Matthew Laniak, principal, $170,174; Brenda Pacheco, principal, $167,993; Tyra Lewis, executive director of school intervention, $165,622; Vicma Ramos, principal, $163,043; Kathryn Hargis, assistant principal, $161,615; Gloria Sullivan, director of compliance, $159,231; Anita Murphy, deputy superintendent, $156,926.
The second ten consists of Karon Jackson, principal, $156,903; Lessie Hamilton-Rose, principal, $153,738; Anibal Soler Jr.,principal, $153,538; Sharon Jackson, principal, $152,590; Deasure Matthew, principal, $151,939; Judith Ingutti, assistant principal, $151,250; Timothy Cliby, director of technology, $150,603; Michelle Liguori-Alampi, principal, $149,549; Wakili Moore, principal, $149,527; Marlene Blocker, principal, $149,277.
Remember, there were 294 other employees who also made six figures in straight salary that year. Just imagine the combined cost of their health insurance and other benefits.
By comparison, the Buffalo school district, which is roughly the same size, had only 71 employees making over $100,000 in 2012-13. The Syracuse district also had 71. Why does Rochester need so many?
There’s no doubt the people drawing these magnificent paychecks are living the American dream. But how can any of them justify their salaries, and feel like they’ve earned that type of money, when so many students are failing so badly?
How can the school board sit by and grant these types of salaries in a district with so many other needs?
Couldn’t at least a few million bucks be trimmed from the payroll and transferred to neighborhood schools, where it could be more directly applied toward student learning?
Rochester school employees spent a total of $93,226 at various hotels around the nation in 2012-13.
The second largest expenditure was $31,872 at the Rich Albany Hotel, LLC. District officials say the expense was for a Common Core training for 128 teachers.
The biggest single expense was $35,890 at the Rich Albany Hotel, LLC. That expensive paid for a Common Core training trip for 245 teachers, according to district officials.
Another $20,340 went to First Choice Travel. That paid for an “educational trip for 36 social studies teachers” and was funded with grant money, according to the district.
The district spent $2,638 at the Darien Lake Theme Park Resort; $2,151 at the New York Hilton; $1,305 at the Desmond Hotel and Conference Center; and $1,602 at the Renaissance Hotel.
There were 20 separate transactions at the Albany Hotel. The total cost came to $7,196. There were 13 separate transactions at the Rich Albany Hotel, LLC for a total of $3,627. There was a single payment at the same hotel for $996.
District officials explained that nearly all of these travel and lodging costs were related to professional development of one type or another for teachers.
But expensive travel for big groups is hard to justify for a district with big deficits, lots of layoffs and inflated salaries. Wouldn’t it be far less expensive to bring the experts to the teachers, rather than vice-versa, and let the staff learn about Common Core or other topics in a local school auditorium? Video conferencing is also available through modern technology.
Rochester school officials, like those in many other districts, defend much of the travel because it’s “grant-funded.” That begs one simple question – why in the world would the federal government (or New York State) give a school district more than $100,000 for travel when it’s laying off teachers by the dozens? Maybe the district should have been instructed to use that money for basic educational services until its finances are in better shape.
That would have eliminated a lot of fun travel, but tough times require sacrifices.
That’s sacrifices – spelled s-a-c-r-i-f-i-c-e-s – in case the school’s wealthy leadership team is unfamiliar with the term.
Restaurants and entertainment
The school district’s restaurant tab is a bit of a mystery. That’s because $51,105 – about half of the total – was spent at the Rochester Institute of Technology Dining Services. When we asked the district to explain, the written response was “These expenditures were funded by a grant funded program sponsored by RIT for the RIT and RCSD National Academy Foundation Project.”
We had no idea what that meant, so we asked for a more specific explanation and received no reply.
The other restaurant expenses are easier to identify. Some of the bigger tabs were $1,620 at the Culver Road Pizzeria, $1,283 at Monroe Avenue Pizza, $3,354 at Salvatore’s Pizza, $1,149 at Salvatore’s Southwedge Pizza & Deli, $1,610 at Saturday Morning Bakery, $2,422 at Team RNB (Famous Dave’s) Wisconsin, $1,599 at Tokyo Japanese Restaurant, $1,211 at Cravings on Main, and $2,170 at El Latino Restaurant.
Rochester students have no gripe when it comes to having fun, eye-opening and expensive experiences at school. The Rochester district spent $134,961 on entertainment/recreation opportunities at various venues in 2012-13.
While many of these experiences probably had educational value for students and teachers alike, the question is whether a district in rough financial shape could afford the type of money that was spent.
Here are some of the biggest expenditures: $25,920 at the University of Rochester Memorial Art Gallery; $10,411 at the National Museum of Play; $16,754 at the Rochester Broadway Theater League; $14,055 at the Rochester Children’s Theater Nazareth College Art Center; $3,488 at the Bay Creek Paddling Center; $6,000 at the Corn Hill Waterfront & Navigation Foundation; and $1,339 at Glacier Ridge.
Other pricey activities included $3,568 at Genesee Country Village & Museum; $5,729 at the Seabreeze Amusement Park; $1,000 for the touring Harlem Gospel Choir; $1,260 at the Little Theater; $7,335 at the Rochester Museum and Science Center; $5,483 at the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra; and $2,500 at Rock Ventures.
There was also $8,310 for the Magnificent Africa Exhibition at the Baobab Cultural Center and $10,940 for Peace Full Kids Yoga.
Was some of this stuff grant funded? Absolutely. Could the district have used that type of grant money for more important things? Without a doubt.
The district also paid $88,251 to Pearl Ministries for student tutoring. While it’s hard to criticize extra academic help for students, we have to wonder why it was necessary in a school with a 12-to-1 student/teacher ratio. With so few students, it would seem that teachers would have more than enough time to provide some personal assistance.
Ashleigh Costello contributed to this report