Mayo Clinic to donate $10 million to Rochester school district

Century High School in Rochester
Century High School in Rochester.
Rochester Public School District

The Mayo Clinic threw Rochester Public Schools a lifeline Wednesday morning when it announced plans to give the district a one-time grant of $10 million. The money will allow the district to avoid closing three elementary schools and hold back on reorganizing several others. It’s the same amount that would have been funded by a levy that voters narrowly rejected last month.

MPR News Correspondent Catharine Richert joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to share the impact this contribution will have on the district.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: And in other news, the Mayo Clinic through the Rochester Public Schools a lifeline this morning, it's giving the district a one time $10 million grant. The money will allow the district to avoid closing three elementary schools and hold back on reorganizing a number of others. This all comes after voters narrowly rejected a $10 million levy last month. Joining us from Rochester to share the impact this contribution will have on the district is NPR News correspondent Catherine Richert. Well, Cat this is an interesting story, why did Mayo decide to make this contribution?

CATHERINE RICHERT: Well, Cathy I'll just start out by saying that I've been to a lot of holiday gatherings in my personal life these last few weeks and I cannot tell you how much people were talking about this. This is like top of mind for so many people in Rochester because it affected nearly every person who's got a kid enrolled in the district. I would also say that having Mayo Clinic jump in and solve this problem, at least for the next year was not on my bingo card of where things were going. But if you think about it, actually makes a ton of sense. Mayo Clinic is to some degree Rochester and Rochester is to some degree Mayo, and the two are so closely entwined that Mayo has a pretty big stake in the success of students here, whether it's creating the workforce of the future for Mayo Clinic or employees kids, going to school in the district. So that makes a ton of sense.

It's also the single largest gift that Mayo has ever given the school district too. So that in and of itself is significant. Here's what Dr. Halena Gazelka, pardon, the chief communications officer at Mayo had to say about this earlier. She said that schools in Rochester are-- strong schools are vital to Rochester.

HALENA GAZELKA: So our goal with giving this gift some might wonder is really twofold. What we are trying to do is provide one time support that will allow the school-- the Rochester Public School system to maintain the district's academic momentum but also provide a bridge to achieving greater financial sustainability. Ultimately, really it's an investment in helping kids reach their full potential.

CATHY WURZER: So the district asked taxpayers for this increase in the levy and that was defeated. They were obviously looking at some financial headwinds, how did they get into this trouble in the first place?

CATHERINE RICHERT: Well, this is a culmination of many things coming together at once. So the first thing to know is that in the past under previous superintendents, the school hired more staff than at the rate of enrollment. So fewer kids were coming in than what they predicted, but they were hiring staff at a much higher rate. And that comes with a lot of costs, it's not just salary, it's also benefits that sort of thing. So that was one issue. More recently there's been a big problem in paying for busing to get students to where they need to go, and that has become more expensive as well.

And as you mentioned earlier this year, the district asked voters to approve a referendum that would have created $10 million annually to improve technology in the schools, but it also would have freed up other money that they're currently spending on technology to pay for things like more teachers to accommodate smaller class sizes, that sort of thing. So all of those things coming together after that referendum failed really created this perfect storm. And to be clear, the district has already cut more than $20 million in the last two years under the current superintendent, so this is a story that's been playing out for some time.

CATHY WURZER: So we did talk to the superintendent a number of weeks ago about the situation. So this all led to a proposal that was going to mean a lot of other, you mentioned cuts and other changes, right?

CATHERINE RICHERT: Yeah. So the proposal that was announced late last month was meant to save the district some money they still would have had to make some cuts, but it would have saved some money, especially around the busing issue and here's why. It would have eliminated six citywide schools, so these are schools that award spots based on a lottery and those schools provide transportation to any kid who attends. So you can live on one side of the city, hop on a bus and be driven to your school, you might be the only kid in that neighborhood who's going to that school and that was just both expensive, increasingly expensive and also really time consuming. That proposal also would have closed three schools and consolidated some spaces too, and that would have led to staffing reductions, but that was also a really big point of contention with this proposal as well.

CATHY WURZER: So what does the $10 million Mayo Clinic gift allow the district to do?

CATHERINE RICHERT: So it basically allows the district to maintain more or less the status quo for another year, but still with some far less dramatic changes. So no school closures, but there will be some consolidations, and there will be some transportation modifications for those lottery based schools. So you will still be able to get transportation to those schools, but it's a narrower like region in which you can get that transportation, but not as dramatic as the first proposal.

And actually also does some things that the school district has wanted to do anyway that were included in that proposal last month. For instance, it allows the district to move ahead with earlier start times for elementary school kids, this was approved by the board some time ago, and later start times for middle and high school kids because we know that as kids enter those teen years, it's harder for them to get out of bed early in the morning and they just learn better later in the day. It also will expand before and after school care which is really critical to a community where so many parents are working long hours in a hospital.

CATHY WURZER: Yes, but it sounds like this gift is a one time gift, so the district still has some headwinds to contend with.

CATHERINE RICHERT: Right. And this is clearly a short term fix and it's going to allow the district some breathing rooms, breathing room as it plans for the future. But I asked superintendent Kent Pekel today, what comes next? And he said the funding will allow the district to consider putting another funding referendum on the ballot in 2024. And also get some feedback from the community in the meantime to figure out why it failed this year and maybe better fine tune it to something that voters will approve. Here's what he had to say.

KENT PEKEL: And so it's important that I am unambiguously clear that if we do not succeed in asking our community to increase their targeted investment in Rochester Public Schools, we will be back here a year from now. The referendum that we will put on the ballot that I will make a recommendation to the school board on in coming months, is indispensable to, as Dr. Gazelka said, putting us on a sustainable path to financial stability that then can give us the foundation we need to improve the academic achievement of all of our students.

CATHERINE RICHERT: Now Pekel did say that what that exact question will be and exactly when in the election year calendar it will be on the ballot, remains a question. We'll just see how that plays out.

CATHY WURZER: Interesting. All right Cat, thank you so much.

CATHERINE RICHERT: You're welcome Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: That's NPR correspondent Catherine Richert from Rochester.

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