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Wilmot's tiny white flag

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If a tree falls in the forest, does anybody hear it? Likewise, if a member of the Democratic minority in the County Legislature submits a resolution, does anybody read it?

            Answers: yes, lumberjacks and hikers; no, not really.

            A recent legislative referral submitted by Assistant Minority Leader Christopher Wilmot is a case in point (about resolutions, that is, not redwoods).

            On September 5, Wilmot held a press conference in the county Dems' office calling for a state takeover of the Rochester City School District.

            On its face, that sounds like serious business --- ceding local control of city schools to Albany, restructuring a school-governing system codified in the State Constitution, possibly following Philadelphia's lead by privatizing public education. And Wilmot made it clear there are some big issues at stake: nothing less than the lives and futures of the city's roughly 37,000 students.

            The reaction, however, was anything but big. The Democrat and Chronicle noted the news conference with a four-paragraph brief the next day, and local TV stations ran a few frames of video, mostly of other cameras capturing the "action."

            Internally, Wilmot's resolution wasn't even sent to a committee for consideration. Instead, it's become what's termed a "memorializing referral."

            Such referrals are typically nothing more than statements of opinion regarding legislation pending before state lawmakers and other fanciful notions. When the full legislature meets, legislators can indicate their support for memorializing referrals by signing them when they're passed around on a clipboard. The signed referrals are then sent to the appropriate recipients --- in this case, County Executive Jack Doyle, Mayor Bill Johnson, and Governor George Pataki.

"Urban education is broken and cannot be fixed," says Wilmot. Asked at the press conference how a state takeover would help, Wilmot was short on answers. His resolution merely asks that Doyle "begin discussions" with Johnson and Pataki about initiating such a change. (Given the sour relationship between Doyle and Johnson, Wilmot may as well have asked a grizzly to begin discussions with a mountain lion.)

            In a subsequent interview, Wilmot elaborated a bit more on his idea. His central premise is that the high concentration of poverty in the city dooms kids to fail in school. Until the problem of urban poverty is addressed, Wilmot would give city kids the chance to attend public schools in the suburbs --- through a greatly expanded urban-suburban transfer program --- or new magnet schools located throughout the county. Some suburban students would also attend class in city schools.

            Asked why urban-suburban transfers aren't common, Wilmot says, "Socially speaking, bigotry and fear is what has prevented that." Since the integration battles of the 1950s and '60s, "parents and families and neighborhoods have resegregated themselves," Wilmot says. He admits overcoming "bigotry and fear" is a long-term struggle, but says, "I believe, like Thurgood Marshall believed and others, that sometimes the leaders have to lead. Segregation was wrong in 1954, and it's wrong in 2002."

A state takeover of Rochester's schools "means probably getting rid of the school board and the superintendent and having the state Department of Education run the system," Wilmot says, but "in terms of day-to-day activities, it's hard to say."

            Wilmot is opposed to one reform scenario gaining currency these days: giving the mayor the power to appoint the school board and superintendent, and making them accountable to the mayor and city council. His opposition to the idea, however, is based as much in personal as pragmatic reservations.

            "Mayor Johnson and I are not friendly at the moment," Wilmot says. "We have a feud going on right now."

            The feud, of course, stems from the Democratic caucus' vote to replace José Cruz with Stephanie Aldersley as Minority Leader this summer. Johnson was particularly angry that his fellow Dems made the change without consulting him first, calling the vote to oust Cruz "so incredibly stupid that it defies logic."

            Though he calls Johnson a "bright, intelligent person," Wilmot says, "the mayor is too political right now, and he doesn't have the expertise to administer a school system.

            "A mayor should only be in control if a mayor advocates breaking up these high concentrations of poverty," continues Wilmot, who's previously expressed interest in running for mayor when Johnson leaves the job in 2003.

There hasn't been much, if any, public support for Wilmot's resolution since he announced it earlier this month. Asked who'll sign the memorializing referral when the clipboard comes their way, Wilmot says, "probably not too many, but a couple. Probably a couple from both sides [of the aisle]."

            According to Wilmot, Republican Majority Leader Bill Smith of Pittsford contacted him and "promised" to sign the referral. Smith "really liked it," Wilmot says. "Was he just playing politics or being a kind fellow and schmoozing?" he asks. "I'll take it for what it's worth."

            Smith did not return calls seeking comment.

            Given his resolution's dismal chance of passing the Republican-dominated Legislature, one wonders whether Wilmot isn't just playing politics himself.

            "Reporters who are naïve say, 'Where's it going to go?'" Wilmot says. "Go ask the Republicans. They're the bastards who kill everything we do. If you want to be cynical, be cynical with the current majority."

            No thanks, Chris.

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