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Wade Norwood: schools, money, and City Hall

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The mayor and the schools

City: Given the city's fiscal challenges, would you favor giving more money to the CitySchool District?

Norwood: No. I think the real question is: How do we get more state investment into local government and local education? Rochester's next mayor's going to have to be very aggressive in laying out a new vision for state participation in ensuring a sound basic education.

Education investment is broader than investment in the CitySchool District treasury. I want to see significant increases in the birth-to-2 period in kids' lives. There needs to be additional investment in pre-k through eighth grade, making sure that we have smaller schools, neighborhood-based schools, a quality curriculum, and that we're adequately staffing early intervention so that we're able to keep kids on track.

You want to have the school superintendent report to the mayor. Describe how this would work.

I would see the School Board operating as an educational policy-making body, just as City Council functions as a municipal policy-making body. The day-to-day operations of the district, just as the administration of city government, would be in the hands of the city administration. A school superintendent, an education commissioner, would report to the mayor, just as the housing commissioner reports to the mayor.

The issues of school governance and policy would flow from the mayor's office over to the School Board. The School Board would deliberate, cast a vote, and that vote would be enacted subject to the approval of the mayor, just as Council actions take place subject to the approval of the mayor. And just as City Council can override a mayoral veto, the School Board would be able to do so.

Would the superintendent would find himself or herself pulled in two directions --- trapped between the mayor and the School Board?

No. I don't think that city commissioners or department heads feel trapped between Council members and the administration. Elected legislators serve commissioners or department heads when they're able to represent the views of the public and engage the administration in policy debate. I think that commissioners welcome that.

What they don't welcome, and what mayors don't welcome, is interference in the daily operations. I'm sure every School Board member is now heavily engaged in helping parents get students into the schools of their choice. That's not the right and proper function of our elected policy makers.

Does a mayor have enough time and emotional energy to add one more huge department, schools, to the job?

That's a fair question. But so much of what I hear on this campaign has to do with A) how we make sure that schools work for kids, and B) how we provide kids with the inner resilience to overcome the challenges in life. That speaks so directly to schools that I don't see any way I could serve as mayor and accomplish what I'd like to accomplish, knowing that here's an area where all I can do is talk and point fingers.

Are you saying, then, that part of the reason for students' low achievement is not so much concentrated poverty, the education level of the family, the street, and all of that, but how the superintendent runs the school district?

No. What I'm saying is that either we believe that education is the route by which young people are able to break free of these things, or we believe that we'll never be successfully able to educate children until we solve all of these other things first. I deny that latter viewpoint.

Education is and has always been the route by which people overcome poverty, by which people make it into the working and the middle class of this society, and we need to be very focused on making results occur. I don't think there's any lack of ideas; I think we have a clear sense of what needs to happen. But the current governance model --- where governance is shared among seven people, as opposed to holding one individual accountable --- is a major impediment.

It's a system where everybody's accountable so no one's accountable, where the arrows of City Hall point in one direction and the arrows of the district point in another, and we wind up with a city-school district relationship that's characterized by finger pointing. We have to move beyond that.

And no disrespect to the board, but when it is a political body of seven people, it means that they have to work to consensus and get things done. The education of our children is too important to be left to that type of consensual decision-making process.

We have a very bright superintendent. He should be fully vested with the powers of the city government and the school district. He should know that if he stands up and says, This is going to happen, that he has the full weight of the mayor's office behind him to make that happen.


Money problems

Let's talk a little more about the city's fiscal restraints. You say we need to make sure than the state provides more funding for Rochester. Why do we get a smaller share than Buffalo and other cities?

The reason is purely and absolutely political. Other communities have been far more aggressive, and far more adept at getting incremental increases than we have. They have been able to present our state delegations with crises that have pulled urban and suburban legislators on the same platform. We have not done that in Rochester, first of all because until very recently we haven't felt we needed to. We've been able to solve our problems. In any given year, if you approach the mayor of Buffalo and say, "How are your finances?" Buffalo would say, "Boy, we're in trouble." Our culture in Rochester is, "We will balance our budget." We always deliver a balanced budget to our legislature.

I think that there is a real strength and a real value to being fiscally responsible. I would not encourage my son to be irresponsible simply because he can get money from me. The question is: As we have come to the end of our own capacities, could we have been more aggressive and more adept? And I think the answer is yes.

There is such a cultural difference, such a language difference, between City Hall and the State Legislature. It has been very difficult, because the gap between the way Albany operates and City Hall operates is so wide. This community needs to learn how to do business differently.

The state budget process does not begin in January with the State of the State address. The state budget process begins in the fall, when regional offices and then the central departments submit their budget requests to the governor. Right now is when we should be working to impact next year's state budget.

And are we not?

No. Most of the people in this community will start aggressively holding legislative breakfasts and luncheons and dinners in January, February, March, and April. Half of the game will have passed by.

Are there any city-county consolidations that you would look at to save money and perhaps offer better service?

I'm open to reinvigorating conversations about the water system. There ought to be a no-holds-barred conversation on every area. And consolidations are a two-way street. We are very proud of the work that the mayor has done in extending city services into the suburbs, the fire services, building and zoning services. What are our unique assets? What competencies can we offer to our neighbors and help this community find some relief from New York State's staggering economic disadvantage by lowering the tax requirement for government?

When you prepare a budget next spring, everybody will be asking for more money --- more money for cops, more money for schools, more money for community development. What will be your priorities?

My priority will be finding where other people's money can take the heat off of city government. I have been very engaged in trying to devise market dynamics that would lead to private housing construction in the city. I believe that we are on the verge of being able to get out of the business of constructing affordable housing. We have created market dynamics where the real opportunities are in the private sector and in the rehabilitation of existing stock.

But again, I think we need to look at how we leverage state and federal dollars instead of city dollars. The answer is not a particular issue slice that we can divest ourselves from but rather within each issue slice, what are the things that we could pull out of and allow the voluntary sector, the private sector, or a higher level of government step in and do it.

Or, what are things that we need to stop doing and this community can survive without it? I hope that by finding this realignment between the city and the City School District, there are things we're doing out of City Hall right now that can become part of district operations and can be eligible for state support as an educational expense.

Where is the state going to get the money?

The state's going to do what the state government's been doing for the last 20 years. They're going to engage in borrowing and fiscal sleight to make sure that their obligations are met. As long as state government is in place, it is going to make spending available. I don't believe it's a tin-cup trip to Albany. I believe it's a matter of going to Albany and saying Rochester's your policy laboratory. Here are investments you can make and generate real results. We've done that with the universal pre-k program. We've demonstrated to Albany how it's an investment. We demonstrated with world-class results that you really get a bang for your buck.

That role of being a laboratory makes this a very different conversation than "Let's join Buffalo in a race to get cash." Rather, let's provide the public service of trying to find smart answers to stubborn problems.


Shaping City Hall

How would your administration be different from Bill Johnson's?

It's going to be different in its structure and its composition. The 1950s corporate hierarchy has outlived its usefulness. I think there needs to be a wholesale restructuring of City Hall in order to have an interdepartmental approach.

I would have fewer departments, a flatter line, and a smaller circle of people with direct reports to the mayor. That would give the public greater contact with people who can actually make decisions instead of having to refer things back to superiors.

We have an aging workforce at City Hall that's experiencing a great retirement rate. A restructuring would allow us the opportunity to restaff City Hall with people who have the skill sets that match the customer needs today. And it gives us the opportunity to find out how can we downsize city government and realize some cost-savings that we can pass back to the taxpayer.

I would like to see a city government that is far more connected with the other levels of government, and with elements outside government: arts and culture, colleges and universities. We don't have a staff capacity right now to engage with those sectors, even though we acknowledge that they are critical to our future.

I have a very good sense of those people within City Hall who share my vision and who have demonstrated competency in their work. I also have a sense of the people who are not in government right now who have the talent, the expertise, the vision as well. There are great people in this community, inside and outside of government, great people in this region who don't live in Rochester now but could be enticed to come.

What would be the most important characteristics of your appointees?

I would say competence, community competence, and cultural competence. The people around me now are people who display competencies in those areas, professional as well as personal. Having a management structure that allows for argumentation is necessary and healthy. I like diversity of viewpoints. I like divergence of opinion. And I like being in the company of people who are so solid that I am able to help meld them across the dissonance into a common sense of vision and direction.

What would be your role as mayor? The public face of City Hall? The chief administrator?

It is the person who can reach outside of city government and engage the other levels of government: the voluntary sector, the for-profit sector, individual families, health care, higher education, and tap into their investments so that their efforts become part of a collective whole.

I would hire department heads and commissioners who are able to run their department so that I can engage with them on how their department's activities mesh or fail to mesh with what's going on in the broader world. I don't think that the job of the mayor is to make sure that the widgets are produced but rather to make sure that the widgets work with the sprockets to make the machinery move.

What will be your most important appointments?

City development. In my view, we have done ourselves a disservice by decoupling economic development, specifically neighborhood commercial development, from housing and neighborhood development. What we see in our thriving real-estate markets is that housing sales are supported by the presence of neighborhoods supporting retail within walking distance. And retail follows rooftops, so retail needs sound neighborhood planning.

From there, I'd say it's public safety services, the police chief, and the fire chief and then I'd say it's the deputy mayor who's able to assist the mayor in long range and strategic planning so that we're working and operating not only in 2006 but also in 2010.

What's the role of the mayor in the MonroeCounty Democratic Party?

To be the leader of the Democratic Party. Someone has to serve as a figure that can knit together or partner with each of the various factions that exist and will always, thank God, exist within the Democratic Party. We are a different political community. We do not need a strong boss that comes in and commands everyone's discipline and obedience. What we need is someone who can be a facilitator, a facilitator of conversation and of common action.

One of my knocks is that within the Democratic Party I'm everybody's friend. But certainly I think it is one of my strengths that among those who are supporting other candidates, I count a good number of my friends. I have been able to bring people together, to say, Now, how do we become a team? How do we get things done on behalf of this community?

What will be your position on open government?

I believe that the best government and the best politics is sharing information. There are times where information cannot be shared, and at those times my government will be very clear on why it is. I do not believe that everybody in city government should stand up and speak for the mayor, because only those who are privy to the mayor's thinking should speak for the mayor. But line workers should certainly be free to discuss those views insofar as they're able to do so with accurate information, and I would try to make sure that people understand the lines between the two. I'm very proud that I insisted on language that made sure that this fast ferry board operates by the very same information and openness standards as does City Council.

I find that the more information people have, the more thoroughly people can understand the limitations of government, the more forgiving they are when errors are made or when things just don't pan out.

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