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Metro ink - 1-17-07

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SCHOOL JOBS STILL DISPUTED

The Rev. Willie Harvey, at last week's school-district protest. - PHOTO BY KRESTIA DEGEORGE

The Rochester school district's review of employee complaints, which was greeted with applause a month ago, has dissolved into anger, with some employees and clergy vowing to take their fight further.

Superintendent Manuel Rivera had reviewed the cases of 27 former and current employees who said the district treated them unfairly --- laying them off them, demoting them, or denying them promotions that they sought, for example. An independent review panel interviewed 22 of the 27. And nine were offered jobs or some other form of compensation.

But only one of the employees accepted the district's offer. An African-American clergy group that has been backing the employees is insisting that all 27 should be reinstated. They're encouraging aggrieved employees to sue the district. They're promising to call a strike. And they say they'll take buses of protestors to Boston when Rivera assumes his job as superintendent there this summer.

"I've been here for 46 years, and this is the worst form of discrimination I have ever seen," the Rev. Raymond Graves said at a news conference held last week by United Church Ministries.

And while the review panel concluded that racism wasn't a factor in the employees' treatment, the ministers don't agree. "I know how this city negotiates with us," Graves said. "First they throw you a bone. Then they throw you away."

"They know what they're doing," said former district employee Shirley Billups-Bell. "They'll offer you a job knowing that in a few months that job is going away." Billups-Bell had accepted a district job in community outreach for the Children's Zone, but the job was eliminated a few months later when the Children's Zone became a separate entity from the district.

The ministers said Rivera hasn't hired enough African-American teachers and has locked African Americans out of the district's higher-paying administrative positions. And they blamed him for the district's low graduation rate.

Later that day, a frustrated Rivera said he was disappointed in the ministers' comments. And he said he wasn't sure whether they will ever be satisfied. Maybe the complaints need to be pursued through the Division of Human Rights or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he said, "or let it become a judicial matter."

Some of the nine employees were offered jobs with the district, said Rivera, but they were either not the jobs they wanted or the offer didn't include back pay. One employee wanted an administrator's position but lacked state certification.

"They wanted us to waive it for them," he said, "and we can't." And, he said, some employees have unrealistic expectations about employment in education.

"Just because you have an advanced degree or you have certification, that doesn't mean that you automatically get the job," Rivera said. "Certification is like the ground floor. It's recognition by the state that you're eligible to be in that particular position. That's all it is. It's a basic requirement. It doesn't mean you are a good teacher or a good principal."

Rivera insisted that workforce diversity has been one of his main priorities. "I think there should be significantly more people of color in the district," he said. "Last year, 44 percent of the administrators we hired were people of color. And, yes, we need more African-American, Asian, and Hispanic teachers."

While the district has been increasing its hiring of blacks and Hispanics, however, it continues to be true that most teachers and administrators are white. In June 2006, 78 percent of the teachers were white, 14 percent were black, and 6 percent were Hispanic. Of the members of the administrators union, 61 percent were white, 30 percent were black, and 7 percent were Hispanic. The clergy group and others are pushing for more, and some critics want the teaching staff to reflect the student population, which is about 78 percent black.

But Rivera said he doesn't believe in numerical formulas for hiring. "We need to be hiring the best and the brightest for our students," he said. "That's our first job."

Such answers aren't likely to satisfy the district's critics any more than the review process did, however. And because these are personnel issues, the public and the media don't have access to information that could strengthen the case for the critics or the district.

--- Tim Louis Macaluso


A RESEARCH BREAKTHROUGH?

The UR's Mark Noble: "The first trials are years away." - FILE PHOTO
  • file photo
  • The UR's Mark Noble: "The first trials are years away."

Did the new research on stem cells derived from amniotic fluid abort the embryonic stem cell debate?

Researchers at Harvard University and Wake Forest University say that amniotic stem cells address two of the biggest concerns about stem cell research: they are readily available, and they don't involve the destruction of embryonic stem cells. The researchers say that stem cells in amniotic fluid --- the liquid cushion that protects the fetus in the womb --- are capable of reproducing other types of cells.

And the amniotic cells can be obtained easily without hurting the mother or the fetus.

Problem solved? Not really, advocates of embryonic stem cell research say. And, they say, it would be a mistake to stop pushing for federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

Embryonic stem cells can be used to produce any cell in the body, a unique capability that researchers say could help them find better treatments for spinal-cord injuries, diabetes, and Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

Adult stem cells lack this ability. But if amniotic stem cells have the same reproductive capabilities as embryonic stem cells, the scientific community could have another tool in medical treatment.

"If, and if is the key word here, these cells do the same thing as embryonic stem cells, then we may have something here," says Mark Noble, a cell biologist at the University of Rochester. "But we just don't know yet, and to their credit, the folks at Harvard have said more research is needed. But I have to say, I have some questions regarding some of the preliminary data."

Amniotic research, says Noble, is years behind embryonic stem cell research, which is already going to clinical trials.

"The team working with these cells has to go through a discovery process with a variety of clinical studies," he says. "The first trials are years away, and we don't know what those studies will tell us. The science is still unfolding. I can't tell you how many of these kinds of claims we have heard before. So for our government to already be saying that this is a replacement for embryonic stem cells is ignorant. And it is important to note that even the Harvard group is saying they do not see them as such."

Noble has been a harsh critic of the Bush administration and its interference with science. In July of 2006, President Bush vetoed a bill that would have permitted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Some states --- in particular, California and New Jersey --- have decided to fund stem cell research on their own.

"I know a lot of people who, working with adult stem cells, were looking at brain cells created from bone marrow. Every person that was doing that kind of research has abandoned it," says Noble. "It points out how easily funding can be diverted and steered in the wrong direction, and not deliver the results we need. And I think it shows that we really need to open up all of this funding so that we can all do more research."

--- Tim Louis Macaluso


ONTARIO'S SUNKEN TREASURES

The Hamilton's figurehead, Diana, resting in the depths of Lake Ontario.
  • The Hamilton's figurehead, Diana, resting in the depths of Lake Ontario.

There are ghosts in the waters: the waters of Lake Ontario, specifically.

During the War of 1812, on a stormy night in August of 1813, two American schooners --- the Scourge and the Hamilton --- sank to the bottom of the lake. The gale reportedly lasted only a few minutes, but the ships, converted from freighters into warships and top-heavy with cannons, quickly went down. Because of Ontario's cold, fresh water, and depths that protect them from light, both ships have survived intact at the bottom of the lake: ghostly time capsules whose decks are continuously swept clean by the current.

James Fischer, a marine consultant and retired teacher who lives in Hamlin, has spent the last 22 years exploring the history buried at the bottom of the lake. He now gives lectures and children's programs on the subject.

A peculiar story prefaces the ships' discovery, says Fischer. Dr. Daniel Nelson of St. Catherine's, Ontario, a dentist and amateur archaeologist, was also an avid book collector. Rummaging at a garage sale one day, he came across "A Life Before the Mast," by James Fenimore Cooper. It relays the first-hand account of Ned Myers, one of the few survivors of the Scourge. The book, along with the log book of Captain Yeo of the British fleet, helped to pinpoint the location where both ships had gone down.

In 1971, Nelson co-founded the Hamilton-Scourge Project with a member of the Royal Ontario Museum. Participants in the project first located the sunken ships in 1975 using specialized sonar. The wrecks have since been viewed using a Tethered Remote Operated Vehicle, and in 1980 oceanographer Jacques Cousteau photographed the Hamilton with his mini-sub, theSoucoupe. Along with the expected artifacts --- cannons, shot, anchors, swords --- a few skeletal remains were found.

The exact locations of the ships are kept under wraps by authorities in an effort to keep treasure hunters away. (Although they're US ships, they lie within Canadian territory, and Canada has ownership.) Information on the wrecks and their history is available at www.hamilton-scourge.city.hamilton.on.ca.

--- Dale Evans


COMPTROLLER JOE MORELLE?

Joe Morelle must think he has a pretty good shot at becoming the state's next comptroller.

Last week, the state assemblymember from Irondequoit announced that he was stepping down as chair of the Monroe County Democratic Committee. In a letter e-mailed to party members and in a statement on his website, he cited his candidacy for comptroller as the reason for the move.

The letter highlights a list of his accomplishments as party chair, but most Dems are probably more interested in looking forward, not back at Morelle's tenure. This year brings the promise of bruising City Council primary battles. Morelle has restored a measure of party discipline, which might've softened those disputes had he stuck around. With a weaker chair, the party could return to the divisiveness that has often prevailed here.

If Morelle gets the comptroller job, in addition to selecting a new chair the party will have to fill his assembly seat.

Brighton Supervisor Sandy Frankel is one prominent politician who might be interested in the seat. And some city politicians may be as well. The Democratic committees included in that district --- in Brighton, Irondequoit, and parts of the city --- will choose a replacement. But the district is carved up in such a way that the Irondequoit committee will likely have the controlling voice.

That means that the two county legislators representing Irondequoit --- Stephanie Aldersley and former party chair Ted O'Brien --- will likely be the frontrunners, if they're interested. If O'Brien returned to chairing the party, that could leave Aldersley with an easy victory for the assembly seat.

Of course, that hinges on Morelle getting the nod for comptroller. Governor Eliot Spitzer has appointed a panel to recommend as many as five candidates; that process begins January 23. The decision will be made by a joint meeting of the assembly and the senate. And since Democrats are in the majority, the highest ranking Democrat in the legislature, Sheldon Silver, will have a lot of influence.

Morelle is reputed to be close to Silver, but several other assemblymembers want to be comptroller, too. Paradoxically, one of Morelle's strengths as a politician could be one of his weaknesses in the abbreviated race for comptroller: he's versatile. A lot of politicians are good at raising money or at strategizing, or they've made their mark in a particular policy arena. Morelle's pretty good at all of it, which means he's qualified for a lot of other plum jobs.

Morelle's name has been floated for a lot of different posts. In the past, that included assembly majority leader and state party chair (both of which have now been filled). More recently, it has included chair of the assembly's campaign committee and the upstate economic development czar that Spitzer has promised. On the one hand, it's good news for Morelle that his name is being mentioned for so many top jobs. But that could also mean it'll be easy for his fellow legislators to assume that there'll be another place for him if they give the comptroller job to someone else.

--- Krestia DeGeorge

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