I’ve got some sad and shocking news, everybody — the RCSD is not doing a good job.
Rochester City School District (RCSD) students that have returned to in-person learning are being served cold, sad meals as a result of rehiring struggles and a never-ending budget crisis.
The public was outraged when a photo of a first-day-of-school lunch was posted on Twitter, showing a pathetic hodgepodge of Cheez-Its, string cheese, a dried turkey stick, a pear, a juicebox, and chocolate milk. Apparently, district lunch distribution centers have been providing similar meals for months. The photo got people riled up, and rightfully so.
Budget crises are not new to the RCSD. As a graduate of the district, I rarely made it more than two years at a time without losing a favorite staff member to layoffs. Teachers bought markers and printer ink with their own money. School breakfasts and lunches have always looked like they were dug out of somebody’s bomb shelter, but this is a new low.
Rochester ranks #1 in child poverty when compared with similar benchmark cities, with a rate of 47.7% according to a 2020 report from the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative. Because of this, many families rely on the federally subsidized meals provided by the school district.
The USDA National School Lunch Program refunds schools for meals that abide by federal nutrition standards, but the amount of money is strictly correlated with student participation in the program. Given that 3,100 students attended the first day of in-person classes on Monday, Feb. 8, only about 12% of the district’s overall enrollment, the RCSD’s funding is suffering even further. Any hopes of rehiring and training kitchen staff that were laid off last year and reinstating hot meals are being dashed week by week.
To add insult to injury, surrounding suburban districts were served hot meals resembling those from previous non-COVID-19 afflicted years: hamburgers, tacos, rice and beans, “pizza crunchers” (whatever those are), and baked beans. Another shocker. Yet another symptom of Rochester’s rich history of racism and redlining.
Research for this article led me to something even more disturbing, and the one thing we should all be talking about right now. Despite having a graduation rate of only 63%, the district’s school board is one of the highest paid boards in the country, and the highest in New York State. By quite a bit, too. Whereas members of the Buffalo board make $15,000, RCSD board members make around $26,000.
Cutting school board members’ salaries would hardly save enough money to cover the hiring and training of new kitchen staff. But their disproportionately high salaries still force us to question the city’s priorities. They’re making approximately 73.3% more than their counterparts in similar cities in New York, yet RCSD academics are suffering greatly and have been for years. Now, the city can’t even provide adequate meals for students who rely on them so heavily. Something has to change.
In light of the renewed budget crisis, discussions over possible salary cuts have been circulating, to the school board’s absolute dismay. In a boldly tone-deaf move, the board claimed that a decreased salary wouldn’t reflect their workload and that the money should be taken from elsewhere in the city’s spending, such as the City Council or the County Legislature. But maybe they aren’t entirely wrong.
Reprioritizing funding for the district would require cuts for more than just board members. It isn’t a radical notion for city officials to accept decreased salaries when its district can’t provide sufficient meals for their students who have few or no other options.
One can only hope that the publicity generated by this embarrassing school lunch photo will be enough for them to finally reconsider how much they should be making.
But not to worry. District spokesperson Marisol Ramos-Lopez assures us that this meal satisfies the federal guidelines for nutrition. Thank God; the kids can fuel their learning with a Slim-Jim.