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Judge strikes down city's RCSD referendum

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[ UPDATED ] State Supreme Court Justice Scott Odorisi has ruled that a city-backed referendum on a state takeover of the Rochester City School District should not appear on the November ballot.

Odorisi issued his decision this morning on a school district lawsuit aimed at stopping the referendum, and he sided with the district.  He ruled that the city's Local Law No. 4 – which removes language about the school board from the city's charter and calls for the revisions to be put to a public vote –  is invalid. And he also wrote that "the ensuing referendum is a void advisory referendum."

Odorisi also issued a judgment that blocks the city from "implementing a materially revised version of Local Law No. 4."

This afternoon, the city filed notice that it will appeal the decision.

The decision is a major defeat for Mayor Lovely Warren, who earlier this year began a push to change the governance of the Rochester school district, primarily by removing the school board. Odorisi also forcefully rejected any notion that a June 12 letter Warren sent to 30,000 people about the referendum was educational and within the scope of the law.

"The letter's message is a loud and clear endorsement of the Referendum, and strongly suggests that the voter should be too," he wrote in his decision, which is included below.

Odorisi begins his decision by "acknowledging the great challenges facing the Rochester City School District, and the utmost importance a sound education is in the lives of our children." The city's proposals "for remedying the situation are admirable," he wrote, "but not legally permissible."

The city had argued that the school board had no standing because it wouldn't be directly impacted by the city's action. That, Odorisi said, "is simply untenable" because the board would be eliminated and board members would lose their salaries.

Referring both to the state constitution and to several court cases, Odorisi emphasized that the state has overall responsibility for public schools and that school boards are "separate corporate bodies representing the state."  And he quoted at length a Court of Appeals ruling:

"... it has long been settled that the administration of public education is a State function to be kept separate and apart from all other local or municipal functions.... Although members of a Board of Education in a city perform tasks generally regarded as connected with local government, they are officers of an independent corporation separate and distinct from the city.... 'If there be one public policy well-established in this State'... it is that public education shall be beyond control by municipalities and politics."

In his discussion of the mayor's June 12 letter to 30,000 recipients, Odorisi said he did not question the "sincerity of the City Respondents' intentions to better the School District." "However," he said, "that good faith does not salvage the letter from judicial critique." Taxpayers' money, he said, "should not have been spent" on the letter.

In lieu of a statement responding to Odorisi's ruling, city officials posted "An Open Letter to the Children of the City of Rochester" from Warren. In it, the mayor called Odorisi's decision "a grave injustice" and said it is "just the most recent example where adults twist and abuse the law to protect themselves" at the expense of children and their families. She repeated her argument that the school district's suit was designed to prevent the public from expressing its opinion on a state takeover. And she said she would "take this fight to the halls of Albany and demand our legislators act."

State Supreme Court Justice Scott Odorisi's decision on the RCSD referendum