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A Green sings the school-board blues

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With no Republican running for the single open seat on the city school board this year, most viewed the Democratic primary between appointee Domingo Garcia and David Gantt-backed challenger Cynthia Elliott as the real race to watch. When Garcia won that race, focus switched to other races to be decided in this fall's election. (For more on that primary, including detailed coverage of Garcia's platform, see "Domingo Garcia" and "Donkey Clash," at www.rochester-citynews.com)

But to the lone opposition candidate, the Green Party's David Atias, the contest is a very real one, and it feels a bit more like David vs. Goliath. Like his biblical namesake, Atias is unquestionably the underdog. An educator himself --- he works at the Hillside Children's Center, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and teaches two classes at School Without Walls --- he's even said that he feels like he's running not against Garcia but against the educational system.

An outspoken opponent of standardized testing, Atias has been taking his message --- along with his seven-page platform, and still more extensive website: www.schoolboardforkids.org --- to voters across the city. Asked how he differs most from his opponent, Atias says Garcia is focused on getting the school district more money, while he's concerned with what's going on in the classroom.

But perhaps what distinguishes the two men most is the tactics they advocate.

Atias is running on an openly activist plank: "We need to take a stand," he says. "We need to be activists as a board and as a district and if they're mandating things or if they're extorting us with our own tax dollars to do things that we know are not in the best interest of our children, then we need to say 'no.'" He often cites the example of Fairport, which recently bucked the state by refusing to prepare a budget until it received estimates for the aid the district could expect.

Garcia says he agrees with Atias that much of the system is broken, and agrees that advocacy at the state level is an important function of the school board. But he rejects taking the bold measures Atias suggests.

"We have to be compliant with the law," he says. "Violating the law is not an option." Garcia took that same stance in a controversial vote in August, after some school board members, including President Shirley Thompson, wanted to run the district until the money ran out and then close up shop. Garcia voted with the majority to instead allow Superintendent Manual Rivera to make necessary cuts, contending that closing schools early would violate state education law.

But such a position amounts to one of two common excuses, says Atias, pushing the blame for any failure onto the state and federal governments. "The other excuse I hear is: well the board just sets policy," he says. "Well in the end it's the board that's responsible for how the school district runs." He uses an analogy of a CEO, who's ultimately responsible for the welfare of the company she works for. They may leave day-to-day problems for managers to take care of, says Atias, "but if they don't for years, you get involved, whether it's by changing management or actually taking some action yourself."

He stops short of making accusations of fiscal mismanagement, the central focus of battles between the board and its critics. Part of his reason for hesitating to make such criticism is a lack of information, says Atias. He and other community members have had to file Freedom of Information requests to get budget information, he charges.

"I would love to say I have the answer to exactly how to take money [from] where it's being spent, and spend it in different ways, but you can't get the information," he says. But later in the same interview he takes a stronger tack: "There has to be waste in there," he says. "They've got to be spending money on some of the wrong things, on some of the things downtown."

Garcia dismisses such charges, saying "the district is always very open with the budget." He adds that it's a complicated document, and --- for an outsider like Atias --- difficult to understand. "If he doesn't understand the budget, that's his problem," adds Garcia.

But Atias doesn't need expert help to understand the district's policies are flawed, he says. "First [Garcia] says what we're doing is working, then he says our drop-out rate is 50 percent," Atias says. Such a drop-out rate alone should be sign enough. "Those are the kids who are voting with their feet," Atias says. "Those are the kids who are saying 'You know what? You're not teaching me what's relevant; you're not teaching what's important to me.'"

To Atias, that's proof that too much attention is being paid to money and politics, and not enough to children. "Whether there's more money or less, what happens in the classroom is the most important thing. I mean, that's why the district exists," he says.

The failure Atias sees as a result of 30 years of Democratic domination on the school board may be one reason he doesn't see his third-party status as a liability. Of the Democratic majority he says simply: "It's the same people with the same ideas and the same excuses."

City residents can vote for a school board candidate in the November 2 general election. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. that Tuesday. For more information, call the Monroe County Board of elections at 428-4550.

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