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Remembering Karen Grella

As discussed in Mary Anna Towler's fine tribute in the December 19 edition, the Rochester community recently lost Karen Grella, one of its most ardent and passionate advocates for urban, public education.

Serving as a member of the Rochester school board from 1980 to 1996, Karen's enduring legacy includes the creation of both the School of the Arts and the International Baccalaureate program at Wilson. At the same time, one of Karen's path-breaking accomplishments has been less well-remembered. With Karen playing an instrumental role, in December 1991 the RCSD became the first district in the nation to ban military recruitment on its campuses because gay students were prohibited from enlisting.

Spurred by the local gay community, in 1990 the board examined the recruiting practices of the military. After a series of public meetings, the board determined the practices were in direct conflict with the board's anti-bias mandate, which forbade any organization with a written policy of discrimination based on sexual orientation. As Karen would tell the New York Times, "How would it look to our students if we said discrimination is wrong, but in the military's case it's OK?"

At the time, Karen and the board feared public backlash. Fortunately, most Rochesterians accepted the decision as fair and commendable, and the policy was implemented largely without incident. A countering lawsuit, which named Karen as an appellant, was rejected by the New York State Court of Appeals.

Twenty years ago, Karen had modest expectations about the impact of the board's decision: "We realize this is just a little policy by a little school district and it isn't going to change the stance of the Defense Department." I think, as time has passed, Karen sold short the achievement.

The early1990's saw a number of school districts, colleges, and universities follow — at least indirectly — the board's model. The historic decision even merited praiseworthy mention in Howard Zinn's iconic A People's History of the United States. Finally, 20 years later, Congress has completely eliminated sexual orientation as a bar to service.

Today, any gay student in the RCSD can proudly join the Armed Services with far less fear of discrimination and recrimination. Without people like Karen Grella who took the first step, it might not have been possible.

The writer is a Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History

Mayor misrepresented facts

In his January 2 guest commentary ("Aid the Transformation of America's Urban Areas"), Rochester Mayor Tom Richards said, "Before we can put one book on a library shelf or one cop on a beat, the entire property-tax levy has been exhausted by the cost of pensions and the state-mandated $119.1 million payment to the city school district."

Once again, I must admonish our colleagues at City Hall to stop misrepresenting the facts. For 95 years, the state has required that the big cities collect property taxes "on behalf of" their school districts. Why? Because the cities had already developed complete education systems, and because the cities already had a system for collecting taxes when the state mandated public education. Don't believe me? Look at your city tax bills over the last 10 years; "School Tax Levy" has always been there.

Smaller school districts were on their own to figure out how to collect the taxes, and what their boundaries would be. They also had both the freedom and the responsibility to put their school tax levy to a vote.

The only thing that changed was that when Governor Spitzer ushered in the Contract for Excellence funding for schools, which promised a phase-in of adequate funding for education, he turned to the cities and said, in essence, if the state steps up and fulfills its constitutional obligation to fund a "sound basic education," we expect the cities to maintain their current effort and not use this new money as an opportunity to reduce the local commitment to education.

Since then, the state has reneged on the Contract for Excellence. The phase-in of new funding was stopped, and then reversed. Even so, the city's contribution to the Rochester City School District budget remains only 17 percent of the whole. Nearly all the funding for suburban schools comes directly from the local property tax base, so it hardly seems fitting for the city to bemoan its share of the burden for education.

The city and the school district have one common interest: advocating that the state address the inequities created by a tax system that allows high wealth and high poverty tax bases, but demands the same services be provided without the same resources.

Richards lumps school aid in with the cost of pensions as if these issues were two sides of the same coin. Rising pension costs are real, and the city school district is struggling under the weight of those costs as well. But it is unfair to add pension costs and education aid together to make the statement he makes. It is inappropriate to perpetuate the myth that the city has been burdened with an unfair financial obligation to the city school district.

Powell is a commissioner on the Rochester Board of Education

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