School board leadership challenge



It’s probably a safe bet that Malik Evans will be re-elected president of the Rochester school board at the board's January 2 meeting. The 5:30 p.m. meeting is at the district’s central office, 131 West Broad Street.

Board members will elect a president and vice president for one-year terms. Evans has already served five terms as president, winning most of them unopposed.

But this year could be different. He has a challenger in fellow board member Van White, and White’s interest in the job has curiously pitted two men who were once the closest of political allies against each other.

And the outcome could be unsettling, particularly for Superintendent Bolgen Vargas.

School board members earn about $22,000 annually for what is, arguably, a part-time position. The president receives an additional $10,000. Evans says one of his most relevant qualifications for the job is the experience he’s gained from doing it the last five years.

“I think the job of the president is to keep the board functioning as a cohesive unit,” he says. “It should not be about yourself.”

Evans says the president has to be a consensus builder, even when a decision doesn’t necessarily reflect his personal views.

“It’s not the Malik Evans show,” he says. “I’ll work with everybody to get to a decision, and as I’ve said before, a decision is based on [counting] one, two, three, four votes.”

But White, who is actively lobbying his fellow board members for support in his pursuit of the presidency, has a different view. He tends to believe that board members can be led to a decision, and he’s been more successful than most of his colleagues at getting his proposals voted into policies. And while he speaks highly of Evans, he also says it’s time for change: citing a list of well-known statistics about the city school district’s low academic achievement.

“Our priority has to be to have fewer priority schools,” White says, referring to the State Education Department’s label for failing schools. Rochester is at the top of the heap of New York districts with the most failing schools.

“We’re hemorrhaging students to charter schools,” White says. “We can’t keep going in this direction.”

Evans has grown into the suit, becoming one of Rochester’s most well-known pols. But White is not a typical politician. He’s difficult to pigeonhole, tends to go his own way, and is not a darling of the city’s Democratic political elite.

But the problem for Evans and White, both long-time board members, is that the board’s relationship with its past superintendents hasn’t always been productive. This was most evident during Jean-Claude Brizard’s tenure. Some board members worked aggressively to support Brizard, while others worked just as aggressively to oppose him.

There’s also, as there is with many school boards, various understandings of the board’s role: policy makers with a light hand of supervision of the superintendent, or a more hands-on role defining the superintendent’s objectives and specifying how they should be reached.

Much like City Hall's complaints about giving the school district $119 million every year for operational expenses and not having any say in how that money is spent, some school board members complain they don’t always have control over many of the superintendent’s decisions. But they receive the calls from angry parents and residents when he’s made the wrong choices.

White has been the most vocal about his concerns with the superintendent’s leadership. He does not subscribe to the ideology that board members should be behind-the-scenes policy makers, either.

“If those students do not have books, the board is responsible,” he says. “If black males are not graduating, the board is responsible. We can’t serve in that capacity and be passive policy makers. We’re elected and retained to get results. We’re not the customers and we’re not spectators of whatever the superintendent decides to do. Yes, we have a great quarterback in Bolgen Vargas, but we are a team."

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