LONSBERRY: RCSD Board Members Have Conflict Of Interest

 Two members of the Rochester City School Board must recuse themselves from deliberating on or deciding about the superintendent’s call to expand pre-kindergarten services in the district.

               That is because they are employed by non-profit organizations that make a great deal of money by offering similar pre-k services. If the school district expands its emphasis on pre-k, that will take students – and money – away from the organizations that employ the school board members.

               That creates an undeniable and unacceptable conflict of interest.

               Who are we talking about?

               School Board Vice President Cynthia Elliott and board member Beatriz LeBron.

               Elliott is the associate executive director of the Baden Street Settlement House, which runs two daycare/pre-k operations. LeBron is an outreach worker at the Community Place, which also runs a pre-k.

               Interestingly, Elliott and LeBron have been the leaders of opposition to the superintendent’s plan to expand district pre-k.

               Specifically, Superintendent Terry Dade has proposed closing schools 44 and 57 and using those buildings to provide pre-kindergarten services to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. That would serve two purposes – to serve the children and families involved, and to help the district’s tattered finances.

               How?

               Each pre-k students comes with state aid attached.

               That’s why pre-k programs have proliferated around the city. Non-profits – “community-based organizations” in government speak – have responded to the financial appeal of offering pre-k.

               And that’s fine. Many politicians see pre-k as a way to fund non-profits with which they agree.

               What happens is youngsters become a commodity. Whether their parents are concerned about their education, or just want the free babysitting that sending them to school can be, there is a big desire by families for children to be in pre-k. And there is a big desire by pre-k providers to get as many of those children as possible in order to get as much state money as possible.

               Competition for that money is intense. The non-profits compete against one another, and against the school district. And now the school district wants to increase its market share.

               Currently, the district has 39% of the city’s pre-k students. The plan to expand services will take it to something a little north of 50%.

               That could be millions of dollars.

               And that explains the opposition to the superintendent’s plan.

               Instead of embracing the higher quality pre-k services which would presumably be provided by a school-based system, non-profits are fighting to protect their turf – turf which they hold primarily because of political connection and incompetence in the prior management of the Rochester City School District.

               Because Rochester isn’t doing it like other cities do it.

               Whereas the Rochester district teaches less than 40% of its city’s pre-k students, Syracuse city schools educate 60% and Buffalo educates 81%.

               The shift of more pre-k students into actual schools is consistent with how it’s done elsewhere, and will seemingly benefit students and the district alike.

               And yet the plan is facing strong opposition. On the board of education, that is primarily coming from Cynthia Elliott and Beatriz LeBron.

               Whether to shift some pre-k slots from the non-profits to the school district is a conversation the community ought to have, and it is a decision the board ought to make.

               But it is a decision which can’t be tainted by conflict of interest.

               Elliott and LeBron work for community-based organizations that profit from pre-k. They cannot participate in a governmental decision that could financially impact their employers.

               So they must recuse themselves.

               This isn’t a shade-of-gray thing. This is good, old-fashioned ethics.

               They have to step aside from this issue.

               Or the state monitor will do it for them.

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