Rochester has faced serious challenges during the last several decades: a rapid decline of manufacturing jobs, a deteriorating downtown, a declining tax base, a poverty rate that is one of the highest in the nation, and a school district with distressingly low test scores and graduation rates.
Four longtime elected officials who have dealt with those challenges left office at the end of the year. In "exit interviews" in late December, City Council members Carolee Conklin and Dana Miller and school board members Malik Evans and José Cruz discussed what they've seen in their time in office and shared their thoughts about the city's challenges their successors face.
Between them, the four have more than 50 years of experience in community service, and they've worked with a succession of mayors and school superintendents coping with dramatic changes in the city. And while there has been notable progress in some areas – the tax base has edged up, and downtown development has increased sharply – other daunting problems remain.
Chief among them: the Rochester school district. While the four officials have different perspectives on the challenges in the school district, all cited the district as a primary concern. The future of the city and the district are intrinsically linked, they said. Without a strong school district, Rochester can't reach its potential.
Carolee Conklin is closing out a lengthy career in City Hall. She served three terms on City Council and prior to that was city clerk and deputy treasurer. An expert in city finances, Conklin has chaired Council's finance committee. And she has been a feisty, outspoken, sometimes blunt Council member, something she exhibited as she talked about the city and some of the unfinished business she leaves behind.
One major unfinished piece of city business is the proposal for a performing arts center for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League, which Council may vote on early in 2018. Conklin supports building a performing arts center, but she has qualifications.
"It's got to be able to operate without any taxpayer subsidy," Conklin said. She's not convinced that mixing a theater with housing, as the RBTL proposal does, is a good idea. And she isn't sold putting it on Midtown's Parcel 5, as the current proposal does.
"I honestly don't know my position on Parcel 5," she said. "That kind of development: that's a very large foot print on a small parcel. My personal preference is to let Parcel 5 sit there for three to five years."
Also facing city officials: deciding whether the time has come for the city to stop subsidizing downtown development. Conklin says it has.
"At the end of the Duffy administration, nobody wanted to give you two cents for downtown property," Conklin said. "But that's changed. I think we have to be cautious, and I don't think we need to pour more city money into downtown. I think the time has come to end priming the pump and direct more funds into the neighborhoods."
Another piece of unfinished business as Conklin leaves office: City Council's study of police oversight.
Conklin favors a more independent review board to oversee complaints of police misconduct. "Every elected official I know of supports some kind of independent review board," Conklin said. But she is concerned about an "us against them" mindset that has emerged between the public and the police.
"Anybody who works in fire and police has the toughest job in public service," she said. "I don't see how we're going to solve a problem overnight that's been festering since the 1960's."
Conklin, a long-time and often harsh critic of the Rochester school district, said that in many ways the city's future is tied to improving the city school district.
"Our city's schools are failing miserably, and it's not because our kids are dumb," Conklin said. The district doesn't have a great record at managing its finances, Conklin said, and there's a lot of administrative bloat.
She's especially concerned about the debt the district carries, which can impact the city's financial rating.
"Their balance of debt never decreases," Conklin said. "The city and district are bound together. If the school district doesn't decrease that debt, the city has to pick up that debt. The city and district have more than a $1 billion budget, and some of it in the district is just not being spent wisely. I know it's not what people want to hear, but I'm quite used to the criticism."
A low-performing school district isn't the city's only problem, Conklin said. A shrinking tax base has also been a serious problem.
"This area's economy until recently was fueled by manufacturing, which was the source of our tax base," Conklin said. "But now our biggest employer is the University of Rochester, which is tax exempt. I think any reasonably sane person who wants to see this area thrive again needs to be thinking seriously about metro government."
Dana Miller served three terms on City Council and hoped to serve a fourth, but he failed to win re-election in November. Sitting at a table at Brue Coffee, an establishment on Genesee Street that Miller co-owns, he said his first day on City Council was one of his most memorable.
That day, he was appointed to the management board for the fast ferry, which was controversial from the start. "To this day," he said, "I still believe it was a wonderful idea poorly executed. People would say, 'Why would anybody from Toronto want to come to Rochester?' But that wasn't the point. We were creating a whole new way to come to the US."
But trash-talking Rochester, finding fault in every proposal, seems to be our favorite pastime, Miller said. The same has been true about downtown development. The transformation of downtown wouldn't be happening without the foresight some people showed, Miller said, and he offered a long list of the area's well-known developers.
"Center City has gone from a place that everybody considered was dead to a transformation that, along with filling the Inner Loop, will be felt for a long, long time," Miller said.
On police oversight: Miller said he's confident that City Council will make significant changes to the civilian review board, making it more independent and transparent. There's broad agreement that changes are needed. But Miller is also cautious: every organization has individuals who have poor attitudes and aren't good at their jobs, but that shouldn't lead to a wholesale condemnation of the Rochester police force, he said.
"I don't think anybody wants to live in a Rochester without a police department, but the process for reviewing complaints against police officers has to change," Miller said.
Another huge concern for Miller is the city's concentration of poverty, a problem he attributes to an underperforming school system and the disappearance of jobs that pay a living wage.
"There's very little that City Council can do about the school district, even though we hear the concerns every day," Miller said. And he, like Conklin, criticizes the district: "We give them $119 million every year, which is more than Buffalo and Syracuse give their districts," he said, "and there's little to show for it."
Miller agrees that the severity of Rochester's poverty has worsened in recent years, which was accompanied by a decline in manufacturing.
"Rochester is not Atlanta," he said. "We don't have a corporate giant like Coca-Cola."
But improving the city's education outcomes continues to be the area's biggest challenge, Miller said. And he thinks the model presented by Great Schools 4 All – county-wide magnet schools that cap the student poverty rate at 40 percent – is a step in the right direction.
"We have to have parents pushing for the best education options for their children," Miller said. The alternative fuels cycles of poverty instead of opportunity for students, families, and neighborhoods, he said.
"If you can't be involved in the legal economy, you become involved in the illegal economy, where younger people are recruited as foot soldiers because the adults know they will receive lighter sentences," Miller said.
Malik Evans is leaving the school board, but he's not leaving elected office. He's now one of the five at-large City Council members, a seat he won in November. He was elected to the school board in 2003 at the age of 23, making him the youngest person ever elected to that position, and he was president from 2008 to 2013. With that background, he brings an understanding of the school district that few City Council members have had.
Evans has long been involved in numerous youth and family organizations and activities, and he's well-known and approachable. During a recent early-morning interview at a local diner, a server took his order and then asked: "Your name is Malik Evans, isn't it?"
"Yes," Evans said. "How do I know you? Didn't we help your daughter with something?"
"Oh, yes, you did," the server said, "and she still talks about you. She's a manager at McDonald's now and doing well."
This happens a lot, Evans said afterwards. He and other school officials helped the server's daughter through a rough patch and convinced her to stay in school and graduate.
But school board service isn't always that pleasant, given some perceptions the public has about the Rochester school district. "You've got to have thick skin if you want to be in this business," Evans said. "Politics isn't for everyone. Things like that remind you of why you do this work, because after getting beat up at a board meeting, you'll ask yourself, 'Why am I doing this?' And that right there is why. You can help someone make better choices that will lead to a better life."
People have every right to be concerned about the low academic performance in some city schools, Evans said.
"I think there are some areas where we have not made progress, and that's inexcusable," Evans said. "Special education is one of them, but you also have to look at what we've accomplished with universal pre-K and our summer learning programs. There are bright spots in the district, too, and we need to build on them."
Some criticism of the school district is simply uninformed and counterproductive, Evans said.
"Our households are so challenged," he said. "I would urge some of our community leaders and worst critics to visit our schools and spend the day with some of our principals. See for yourself what's going on in those buildings and what our kids bring to school with them every day. People have no idea about the brokenness of our families. Off the top of my head I can think of a grandmother, an older grandmother, raising six kids on her own."
Education, Evans said, is a three-legged stool, and each leg – schools, home, and the community – has to play a role for the stool to be stable. The Upstate economy has left many families behind, creating complex challenges for the district.
"The average district kid moves something like four times a year," Evans said. "Yes, the district needs to do its job, and it needs to be held accountable, but you can't possibly look at problems this serious in a vacuum."
Evans himself had two parents who stressed the importance of education, and going on to college was never optional, he said.
"I learned how to read before I got to school," Evans said. "It used to be that school reinforced what you learned at home. There were six of us and we all went to college, and five of us earned advanced degrees."
Many of the school district's children, he said, don't have that kind of advantage.
José Cruz, who served two terms in the Monroe County Legislature, is leaving the school board after two terms. In his interview, he focused on the complexity of the district's problems – and the perception of some critics that solutions are simple.
"A lot of people will say, 'You guys need to do this or that, and everything will be better,'" Cruz said. "I get this all the time, but it's not that simple. There are challenges you have to deal with, and sometimes it's like trying to squeeze jelly into a square, but it just comes out the sides."
He's frequently asked why the district doesn't just replicate some of its highest performing schools: School 23, School Without Walls, School 58, and School of the Arts, for example.
"Here's the challenge," Cruz said. "If you look closely at the schools that do well – the SOTAs, the 58's, the 23's – they aren't just different school models. They have different support systems. SOTA, for example, is very unique. You have parents who involve themselves in everything, and nothing happens in that school that parents generally don't know about. The same is true at 58 and 23. What's the common denominator in our most successful schools? It's parents."
It's not realistic to expect all parents to be that engaged in their child's school, Cruz said.
"I've told many parents that whether or not you help your child with their algebra homework is not as important to me as making every possible effort to make sure that child is attending school at least 90 percent of the time," Cruz said.
Nor is it reasonable to blame teachers and unions, Cruz said. Suburban districts have teachers with similar qualifications, and they have unions, but they don't have anywhere nearly the number of families with employment, health care, and housing issues, Cruz said.
"How we get beyond that is probably one of the most critical questions you can ask about urban education today," he said. "Think about what we do on a daily basis. We transport the children to school, provide them with breakfast, snacks, instruction, free lunch, after-school activities, and transportation home."
Many children go home to parents who can support them with their homework and daily needs, and they do a great job, Cruz said. "But we also have challenged families where at the end of the day, that child enters into a whole different reality – anything from unstable housing, family trauma, and even hunger. This isn't one or two kids. This is a large percent of the population."
Cruz is particularly concerned about the needs of Latinx students and their families, and he said the district has largely fallen short at helping them – a reflection of disagreements about approaches to teaching English.
"A lot of our students come here from outside of this community with varying degrees of education," Cruz said. "Some are coming here and their education has been interrupted many times. Others are well educated and are performing at grade level, but don't speak English. We just haven't been very good at figuring out the best model for making that transition into a second language."
A good example of the special needs of Rochester's Latinx community, Cruz said, is the recent influx of Puerto Rican students after Hurricane Maria. The school district has already enrolled nearly 500 students from Puerto Rico since the hurricane struck the island, and it's ramping up to accept as many as 500 more.
The difficulty of enrolling a huge number of students in the middle of the school year is compounded by the difficulty of helping the students adjust to a mainly English-speaking environment.
And that's an illustration of the complexity of the problems the school district faces. "One of the things I walk away with," Cruz said, "is a true understanding of just how complicated the Rochester school district is. Once you realize how complicated the district is, you begin to understand that the solutions are sometimes going to be as complicated as the problems we're trying to solve."