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Council approves referendum on state takeover of RCSD


City of Rochester residents will be able to vote in a non-binding referendum this November on having the state temporarily take over the Rochester City School District, removing the school board.

It is non-binding because only state lawmakers can remove an elected school board from office.

In a split decision, Council President Loretta Scott, Vice President Willie Lightfoot, and Council members Mitch Gruber, Mike Patterson, and Malik Evans voted for it. They were jeered by some people in the crowd as they gave their final statements on the issue. Citizen Action of New York lead organizer Mercedes Phelan yelled at Lightfoot, saying that the group will “remember this when he’s up for election.” Lightfoot yelled back: “bring it.”

Council members Elaine Spaull, Molly Clifford, and Jackie Ortiz voted no. Clifford said she didn’t have enough clarity on what the next steps would be after the vote. Ortiz said there wasn’t enough time to deliberate on the issue and she doesn’t like the wording of the referendum. Spaull said she didn’t want to deprive the public of the right to elect the school board. Council member LaShay Harris abstained because she's an employee of the school district.

The vote was preceded by several months of controversy. In November, former state-appointed Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino issued a harsh critique of the district’s governance, graduation rates, finances, and many other issues.

In a contentious split decision in early February, the school board approved the district's response to Aquino's report. A month later, Warren was joined by Congressman Joe Morelle and other local leaders to launch an "Our Children, Our Future" petition campaign, which was Warren’s first public appeal to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to restructure the district. "Our Children, Our Future" is the name of the bill passed Tuesday night.

Within days of Warren’s appeal, Elia released her assessment of the school board's response to Aquino's report. It was, she said, “inadequate.”

A few weeks later, Elia returned to Rochester for meetings and a community forum with state Regents Wade Norwood and T. Andrew Brown on a Saturday afternoon. In that meeting, Norwood expressed frustration about how the district uses its money.

“I’m crying,” Norwood said, “because I’m frustrated, and I’m frustrated because I’m tired of re-arranging deck chairs on this cruise ship, and we ought to be charting a different course.”

By May, it appeared that the different course was taking shape. An email chain involving Brown and Norwood, Warren’s chief of staff Alex Yudelson,  Morelle’s senior advisor Sean Hart,  Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski, and Elia outlined a basic framework for a state takeover of the Rochester school district.

That framework included replacing the elected school board with a temporary board appointed by Elia. That board would “serve at the pleasure” of the Board of Regents for at least five years. The superintendent would report directly to Elia.

But the plan was met with immediate opposition by the teachers union, local activists, and state Assembly member Harry Bronson, and no legislation was considered by the state legislature, whose session ends today.

In recent weeks, Warren released a video asking for the public to demand a state takeover, and she asked  City Council to approve a referendum on a state takeover, which it did last night.

James Brown is a reporter for WXXI News.