The mayor and the schools
Given the city's fiscal challenges, would you favor more city funding for the CitySchool District?
While we clearly have fiscal challenges, the first thing I want to do is get in and establish a series of systems that'll focus on not only performance but efficiencies, trying to save money wherever we can. I will work closely with the school district, the superintendent, the School Board, the teachers, to ensure not only that the city provides the funding that we should provide, but also that the district receives the state funding it requires.
I'm going to be very intimately involved with the issue of accountability, that there is a return for every dollar invested, and I'm focused very clearly on student performance, test scores, student behavior, graduation rates, and workforce preparation. I believe in establishing very clear goals and measures, measuring what we do and measuring our accomplishments based upon our investments and our inputs. I expect the same from the school district.
I have proposed the Superintendent's Leadership Council. I'm not proposing any additional level of bureaucracy; it is a belief system that I have to bring together the mayor, the county executive, the head of the Rump Group and the Boulé Group, our unions, especially our teachers union, the United Way president, other community leaders, and clearly define with the superintendent what the goals are, what the measures will be for success, and then ensuring that as a community we get behind the district.
What about having the superintendent report to the mayor?
I disagree with the proposal to have the mayor appoint a superintendent and have the School Board handle just the fiscal end. I'm going to be a mayor that's going to work with, in partnership, the school district. I have a deep ingrained belief that I can be at the table with Superintendent Rivera, with everybody that I just mentioned, and to define the path that will elevate the performance of the school system.
Are you saying that the district hasn't done as good a job as it should?
I think that the district faces a lot of challenges, and it would be unfair to place every bit of blame on the school district, because so many issues the district faces are outside their control. I think an example of that was the Newsweek article that rated Wilson Magnet the 27th best high school in the country. Column two in that article had the percentage of children who required subsidized breakfasts and lunches. I think it was 80 percent; that was the highest number of any school rated, so of the 100 top-rated schools, our kids are the poorest but also can perform at a level with anybody. They are smart, but we have to do some things to ensure that some of the other factors that they face are addressed.
So you put together your group and you all set some goals, and you say, "We want the school district achievement level to grow by this much in the next three years." If at the end of the three years they're not there, what would you do?
I would first identify why we weren't there. Number two, I would identify which programs and steps worked and which ones did not.
But isn't that the superintendent's job?
It is. It is. But in light of the investment that the city would make, I would feel that there would be a great sharing of information and a great working relationship, and that's what I would establish. But before I would ever say I'm going to reduce funding, I would look at what works. And I would perhaps insist on redirecting city funds to those areas that showed performance increases. An example is the Hillside Work-Scholarship program.
Are you suggesting that the mayor --- or this outside group --- would tell the school district where it should spend the money the city provides?
My thought process is that we would be such a partnership to improve education that by the sheer will and the way in which it would operate, it would be a natural progression to be focusing on those areas of success. I look at it more as helping and assisting the school district and the superintendent, not operating against them.
My view of the future is to really have the types of resources, the types of support systems helping the school district to do everything it can to achieve the successes. I'm a full supporter of Manny Rivera's Children's Zone proposal. Those are the kinds of efforts that I believe need to be supported and measured.
Would you support it with city money?
Yes, I would. I would support that and seek other outside support as well. That proposal tries to impact the challenges that our children face outside of school: health care, economics, and it realizes how it's connected to the educational process.
One thing that I'd just throw in here: One thing I would insist on is for us to take a whole different look at the middle-school system, and further define why we are losing so many of these kids. Why do the test scores drop down at these ages? Why do we see the dropout rate continue to go up, or at least not improve in some respects?
Again that seems like the superintendent's job.
Well, it's the superintendent's job, but I think part of this council's role is to bring other resources together to help the superintendent. It's no different than I'm proposing on the economic development end, for the city to have this economic development team that will advise me, help me to create a business plan for the city.
Are you satisfied with the financial reporting that the district gives to City Hall?
I'm at a disadvantage in terms of not reviewing those documents. What I do know is that the comptroller's office did look at the financial practices of the district and gave them a pretty strong, pretty positive report card. What I have seen over many, many years is that there have been tensions between the school district, School Board, city government, county government. I'm going to make sure I am at the table with all the appropriate people, getting all the data, having a great team of advisors.
Rochester receives disproportionately less state aid than some other cities. Why?
I honestly don't know, but I will give you an opinion that I see from observations that I've made. We have a political divisiveness here that impacts our citizens. There are too often positions taken that benefit a small number at the expense of our entire community. There has to be a different focus.
One of the things I want to bring to the table is a different thinking politically. We should be a unified force in Albany for Rochester, a unified force in Washington. We have to make sure that Rochester receives everything that it deserves, and that those funds are spent wisely.
You've asked before about my lack of "political experience." I'm convinced more than ever it is a plus, because I have worked with every elected official here in some capacity and I've gotten along with everybody. My strength is to be able to get consensus at the table. I will not go up to the microphone and throw grenades and insults and attacks at somebody. I will close the door and come to their office to try and fix things.
What consolidations, if any, would you advocate between city and county government?
I would look first of all to start building trust with the county: Let's look at projects that we could examine. For years the water authority's been one, civil service, administrative positions. I'm not going to commit to a decision on any one of those, but I want to sit with the county executive and look at where we can start. And if there is a fear of consolidation, let's start to build trust by showing that with certain things we do together successfully, we can save money for both the city and the county and we can redirect those resources elsewhere. And we start a progression in that partnership.
The bigger entities --- policing --- they are hot-button issues, but I think the big consolidations that may happen in the future won't be driven politically. They'll be driven financially.
Would you support merging the city and county economic development efforts?
I would never turn my back on a proposal that would benefit the citizens of the city of Rochester, so I would be open to discussion to that. But more importantly I would not want to duplicate current efforts. Perhaps a better answer would be to say, city and county put their resources behind the Greater Rochester Enterprise and look at just a single point of contact. What I want to eliminate are duplications of services that could be consolidated and duplications of costs.
How will you deal with the city's fiscal constraints?
The first thing I would look at is going through all of our operations and ensuring that we create a series of economies. I think there are a lot of opportunities for cost saving. To me, tax increases are an absolute last resort, because we do not want to drive people out.
As we develop downtown and neighborhoods and when we get vacant homes back on the tax rolls, we have a chance to start on a path to create wealth. Developing along the waterfront... it's taking advantage of a lot of resources that we have.
Shaping City Hall
How will your administration be different from the Bill Johnson administration?
I would like to rethink some of the ways we are structured and look for opportunities for organizational changes that would help us to streamline our customer services, make us more customer friendly, and become both more effective and efficient. I'm looking at ways of aligning departments based on functionality and trying to streamline the structure.
I intend to implement an initiative called Rochester by the Numbers, which focuses on establishing very clear-cut goals and having measures attached to those goals, and then by virtue of a weekly meeting having each department head report on their progress with each one of those goals --- tracking their progress on a weekly basis to ensure that by each week, month, year we are staying totally focused on our mission, and establishing a sense of accountability from top to bottom. I employed a very similar process called CrimeStat in the Rochester Police Department.
The whole science of how government functions is really important to me. I've seen where changes that a leader can put into effect can have a profound impact on services. I'll point to the CrimeStat effort in the police department. It was not an overly popular model with certain commanding officers, but I can assure you that their level of performance went up dramatically starting in the first year and continuing, because they became so adept at fully understanding what was going on in their respective sections. They had a plan in place to address those issues and they were constantly reporting out on the progress in their goals with crime reduction and quality of life issues.
What's your vision of your role as mayor? Are you the public face? The top administrator?
It's both. It is the CEO and administrator as well as the public face for government, which to me is the only way the next mayor can effectively run the government. My goal would be to hire the best possible talent that I could find to fill every top position in city government. It'd be a formality for every department head and bureau head to submit their resignations at the end of the current administration. I would have a transition team review all of the current staff as well as other applicants inside or outside of government. My goal is to identify the brightest, most committed, passionate men and women that I can find.
I don't want to be behind a desk. I want to be out in City Hall and out in the community and in touch with what we are doing and what the issues are. But I also will not micromanage. I believe that if we find and identify the right talent for each position and the accountability is established, I won't have to micromanage.
When I was at the police department I would work in each patrol section for a week at a time, for the first few years. I rode a bike, I rode in police cars. I attended hundreds and hundreds of neighborhood meetings. I believe in face-to-face contact with people who work in government and the people who we are serving. And I intend to do that as mayor.
Some of the other candidates have emphasized their political background as a strength. Are you concerned about having the contacts and ability to work with the county, the state and federal delegations?
I have a track record of working very well with elected officials as well as a long line of very strong relationships on both sides of the aisle in Washington, in Albany, and here. Project Impact offered tremendous opportunities to partner with the governor's office and his staff, locally with the sheriff's department and the state police, the county executive's office.
I've worked with or around almost all the elected officials, and it really comes down to relationships. I also have a reputation for following through and for returning phone calls, and ensuring that those partnerships stay intact. I can't think of an elected official at any level where I've had anything but a very strong relationship with over the past 13 years. What I don't bring to the table is the political bickering and baggage that some elected officials may have already in place.
And here's an advantage that I also believe that I bring to the table: I am not looking at this as a stepping stone or as a start of a long political career. I am so focused on being here to serve the city of Rochester that everything that I do will be for the benefit of 220,000 people in this city. To some candidates, politics has been their life. For me, public service has been my life.
What's the role of the mayor within the structure of the Democratic Party?
If I'm elected mayor, I will fully accept the responsibilities relative to the Democratic Party. If elected, it is my intention to help recruit outstanding candidates for the future, help to financially support those candidates, and look to strengthen the Democratic Party through providing great government. I believe that we are at a crossroads. We have an opportunity to rethink how we should be acting politically and how political leadership should behave in the future. In the past, political divisiveness has often been at the core of the problems that we have experienced here in Rochester and MonroeCounty.
What's your position on open government?
I believe in open, honest government at all levels. I believe that the doors should be open, and --- barring any legal impediments such as personnel records and personnel histories --- it is my expectation that the citizens of this city will have full access to information, full access to anything that would not be legally prohibited.
I have a pretty good record as a police chief of not dodging the tough questions, providing information at scenes or elsewhere. Providing information is a basic foundation of building trust.