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Change comes to the School Board

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Although it's received less attention than City Hall, there'll be big differences on the Rochester School Board starting January 1. Newcomers Cynthia Elliott and Tom Brennan will replace two veterans on the seven-member board: Jim Bowers and Rob Brown. The board will remain completely Democratic, but that doesn't guarantee peace.

There've been no big, public disputes recently, but the board's history includes plenty of them, the most recent in 2002, over the removal of then-Superintendent Clifford Janey. Even in peaceful times, the board sometimes splits into factions. Retiring board member Rob Brown, a former Democratic Party chair and a skillful politician, has often wielded behind-the-scenes power, and a new, similarly strong leader isn't apparent.

And while Superintendent Manuel Rivera is popular with current board members, newcomer Cynthia Elliott --- a David Gantt supporter --- isn't a fan. Elliott is a strong personality, with strong opinions. She supported mayoral candidate Wade Norwood's proposal to put the mayor in charge of the school district. She has criticized the district for the size of raises given to teachers and to Rivera, and she says Rivera should not be taking the lead he's taking in pushing for his Children's Zone concept.

(Newcomer Tom Brennan is less critical of the district.)

Critics of the school district often change once they become School Board members, however. "If you look back on the history of the board," says board member Willa Powell, "candidates invariably get elected on the reform rhetoric. They decry the budget process and say we should be able to trim here and there, and 'money is surely being spent that shouldn't be.' And they decry the testing results and the graduation results, and that teachers are not doing their jobs and the district can't educate children and so on."

"But that is classic outsider and uninformed rhetoric," says Powell. "Once they go through the budget process and once they go through a full year of testing and see the results, they become an insider that is informed. Most have become, through that experience, advocates of the district, because they see how extremely hard the district has it, and how much harder it is for us to get these children where they need to be in terms of their test scores."

And, says board member Malik Evans, new board members learn that they are only one person. "They will have their vision of what they would like to implement," says Evans, "but they learn right away that you have to learn how to count to four. It takes four votes to get anything done, to make any changes. One person is not going to make changes without three others voting in like mind."

"And you have to remember that the political process is very different from the governing process," says Evans. "I don't have to like the other board members and be friends with each of them, but I do have to respect them and know that we are all there for one reason only, and that is to help these children."