Rochester schools will open next week as they always do, with teachers, administrators, and children full of enthusiasm and hope. But a huge black cloud is hanging over the district, and it may taint everything that happens in the coming months.
This week, Cliff Janey's tenure in the City School District comes to an end. A week ago, we might have thought we could turn our attention away from the embattled superintendent and move on to other matters. Now we know that's not the case.
Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Bill Johnson held a press conference urging legal action against the school district for its separation agreement with Janey. And he said he wants some of the seven School Board members removed. He encouraged citizens to petition the state Education Department to remove the board members. And, he said, if no one steps forward, "I will be that citizen."
This past school year was a troubling, sad one for the school district. But that may be mild compared to what we face this year. The past year's conflicts --- Cliff Janey's future, the district's budget screw-ups, the district's early-retirement program --- will continue to be in the news. Big time.
Meantime, the School Board must find a new superintendent. The district must train a slew of new principals and new teachers. And while the district managed to squeak through its budget crisis this past spring, it'll soon face another one. You can count on it.
On top of this, the board itself is seriously divided. The antagonism among some board members is so sharp it could start a forest fire. Ditto the antagonism between the mayor and some board members.
Make no mistake: The budget screw-ups are not responsible for all of the district's budget problems, but they were significant. They caused great damage to the district's credibility. And part of the agreement under which Janey leaves is, in my humble opinion, bizarre.
Future employers wanting information must speak only to former president Bolgen Vargas. Vargas is to respond only by sending a lengthy reference letter that the board has approved. That letter outlines Janey's accomplishments --- which, in fact, are numerous --- but it says nothing about the controversies over the budget, the early retirement program, and Janey's appointments.
School Board members are deeply divided over those issues, and their opinions have been quoted in the media. Prospective employers will want to hear both sides. And it seems to me that Janey's better off if employers hear those opinions in person, instead of relying on the media reports. The gag agreement is likely to do more harm than good --- to Janey, and to the school district.
But sadly, all of this is a side issue. The district's principal problem --- the City of Rochester's principal problem --- is concentration of poverty.
Poverty is not the school district's fault. And the district cannot overcome it, not with the magnitude and concentration that Rochester experiences.
Yes, yes, yes: Poor children can learn --- in the right academic and peer climate, and with the right parental support. But when a child lives in a neighborhood that is almost entirely poor, and attends a school where nearly every other child is poor, and where a high percentage of parents are poorly educated and under high stress, the odds against academic success are overwhelming.
This community is asking the Rochester school district to do an impossible job. Cliff Janey's exit will not change the academic outcome in the city's schools.
Those schools must have more money. And the metropolitan area's disastrous system of segregated schools must be broken up.
The community --- the metropolitan community --- could rally behind the district, and think boldly. It could recognize its responsibility to its poorest children. It could create regional magnet schools. It could join with other urban regions in New York State and insist on adequate funding for urban districts.
But that will not happen in my lifetime. Meantime, the people who should be Rochester children's strongest advocates are at each other's throats. And that makes me very sad indeed.