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It Takes a City to Change a System

I was at an extraordinary meeting yesterday in Syracuse. Like most urban districts nationwide, Syracuse is facing a deep and painful budget crisis. By the end of this year, the school district may have to cut nearly 25% of its workforce. That’s close to 1000 jobs in less than two years. But despite these very hard times, school superintendent Daniel Lowengard called together a coalition including the school board, representatives from the county, union and university, Say Yes to Education and some national consultants like ERS. The meeting was designed to figure out what everyone in the room was going to do to make the schools better for the kids, despite the drastic cuts necessary. The result was inspiring and exemplary for districts across the country.

It was a discussion unlike any I’ve been a part of. There was a multi-sector group of people speaking respectfully and without defensiveness with one another focused on one goal—to help students realize their dreams. There was an understanding that meeting that goal requires the whole city and all the participants were committed to work hard to make it happen. Syracuse is distinguished from other cities because this kind of collaborative conversation is not new to its participants—though the painful nature of budget cuts is. Say Yes to Education provided seed money to Syracuse a couple years ago around the promise that every child would receive college tuition if they made it through high school. The entire city organized resources around a vision of supporting students to reach the goal of college readiness through frequent review of student progress and needs, providing after school and summer programming, support for social and emotional wellness needs and college access. That initial investment has been far reaching for many Syracuse students but the investment has also built a foundation for district leaders to look carefully at what they’re doing, strategically aligning resources towards improving instruction and support, and making tough choices with shrinking budgets.

And not to sing too many praises for our work, but it was clear that the kind of analysis ERS has been doing with the district provided a critical foundation for this action-oriented, objective conversation. Although it can be challenging for a district to reveal details of all their spending and resource allocation, seeing the data can dispel myths and reveal where spending might be too high. It also gives the district tools to quantify possible next steps when faced with a $50 million budget gap. In the end, ERS is not a budget-cutting organization. But our analysis helped district leaders in Syracuse see clearly how it was allocating resources; clarify their vision for where they want to go, and then realign resources to get there. This crisis has not stopped this process. In fact, it could play a role in accelerating it.

“This is really cutting edge, exciting stuff, and it can make a difference,” said Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, president of Say Yes to Education. We are honored to be a part of this difference and encouraged that Syracuse promise to its children will be kept.

To learn more about the meeting, see the Syracuse’s Post-Standard story on our news page.

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