The results of the general election could be a turning point for the Rochester City School District. Voters may have set in motion a yin-yang approach to the city’s education problems — a dynamic that could prove beneficial. Or they may have unwittingly set the stage for a political battle between the district and the city like none we've ever seen.
Voters overwhelmingly decided to give new four-year terms to incumbent school board members Jose Cruz, Cynthia Elliott, and Van White, all Democrats, last week. But voters also responded to mayor-elect Lovely Warren’s message on education, which strongly emphasizes charter school growth.
Will we see continued cooperation between City Hall and the RCSD — something that grew out of the Richards administration after years of mutual animosity? Or will Warren’s assertive stance on education lead to renewed turmoil?
Voters returned Cruz, Elliott, and White to a district that is by almost every account the worst performing in the state, with some reports ranking it near the bottom nationally. The board’s critics say that the RCSD has shown no signs of improvement and even worsened during the trio’s tenure.
And it’s not as if voters didn’t have alternative candidates. If they wanted to clean house, they could have started in the Democratic primary. Parent advocate Candice Lucas, and University of Rochester Warner School graduate Liz Hallmark were impressive candidates. Lucas was still on the ballot in the general.
And it wasn't as if some of the challengers lacked name recognition. Howard Eagle is a well-known retired district teacher and community activist. And he also made it to the general election.
Still, voters chose the incumbents.
White attributed the victories at least partially to what he calls a growing understanding among voters and the community at large that the district’s problems were there before the incumbents arrived. He says that rational minds know that they didn’t create the district’s problems.
“They don’t blame us because they know we’re not responsible, but the majority do trust us with the responsibility of fixing the district,” White says. “And that is going to take more time.”
And he says it will require greater communication and collaboration between the district, City Hall, and the county.
Elliott campaigned heavily on the idea that the district needs to solve its management issues and create stability for students and families. Her supporters must have agreed.
The district is under enormous pressure as it implements major reforms like the Common Core curriculum, new teacher evaluations, and expanded learning in 21 schools. Superintendent Bolgen Vargas is certainly feeling pressure from State Education Commissioner John King, who has made it clear that he is not backing away from Common Core regardless of protests from parent groups or threats from unions.
If there was ever a time when Vargas, the board, and the district need a coalition of outside support, it’s right now. So what could Warren do?
Immediately resurrecting mayoral control of city schools would be pointless. That drama has already come through town once, and the fight did nothing to resolve the district’s problems. Warren has also promised not to pursue it. But then, so did Bob Duffy — and you know how that turned out.
Warren could instead continue to showcase her personal story, which speaks to the importance of making a personal commitment to success. Warren has risen from humble beginnings to an impressive career in politics. She knows as well as anyone that Vargas’s efforts to increase attendance and improve reading proficiency are critically important.
Her enchantment with charter schools could also encourage her to help begin the transference of charters’ most effective practices into city schools, which was the originally intent of charter school legislation.
A recent study by Mathematica Policy Research and the Center on Reinventing Public Education shows that charter management organizations cited three practices for their success: smaller schools, reduced classroom sizes, and strict behavioral conduct. Could Warren use the influence she says she has in Albany to support such reforms?
If she did, her support would likely be embraced by both the district and the board. And an upheaval that would only drive more middle income families out of city schools to suburban districts — something that would further shrink the city’s tax base — could be avoided.