Seven people are running in a Democratic primary for what must surely be the most thankless of all local elected offices, the Rochester School Board. Although there will be Republican, Independence, and Working Families parties on the ballot in the November election, the four winners of the September 9 Democratic primary will have a strong advantage in the heavily Democratic city.
The four candidates selected by the Democratic Party --- Malik Evans, David Perez, Willa Powell, and Shirley Thompson --- are being challenged by Howard Eagle, Woodrow Hammond, and Glenny Williams.
Democratic voters will have a tough time getting to know the candidates well enough to make a decision. Only one incumbent, board president Shirley Thompson, is running. One previous board member, Willa Powell, is also running, but she's been off the board for nearly two years. There's a wide range of candidates, in age as well as insider-familiarity: Malik Evans is a year out of college, David Perez graduated in 1993, and Glenny Williams is a grandfather. Two --- Howard Eagle and Woody Hammond --- have lengthy experience as district teachers and administrators; all seven have years of community service.
There are no litmus-test issues in this race. The School Board occasionally deals with politically controversial topics --- allowing military recruiters in schools, for example --- but those are rare. And there's very little disagreement on such issues among this year's Democratic candidates.
The most important challenges facing the School Board and the district will continue to be money and academic achievement. For better or worse, those won't be the only topics consuming board members' time and public board meetings. Debate may continue, for example, over the role and power of the board.
State Assemblymember David Gantt has a bill pending that would weaken the powers of the board. It would require the board to get the mayor's approval of the district's budget format. And it would take votes by five of the seven board members to remove the superintendent, as opposed the four votes required now.
But if the board doesn't deal effectively with the issues of money and academic achievement, little else will matter. Meeting those challenges won't be easy, and while disagreements can be expected, board members will have to find a way to work together, with civility and respect, if they are to earn the public support they need.
Like urban school districts throughout the United States, Rochester's student achievement level is abysmally low. And for more than a quarter-century, the achievement rate has fallen as the poverty level has risen. Periodically, the district has been able to make some headway in the elementary-school level, but those gains have disappeared in the upper grades.
The district will almost certainly face continued budget pressures. Unlike suburban districts, it cannot collect taxes itself; it's entirely dependent on funds from city, state, and federal governments --- all of which have their own budget problems.
A recent court ruling offers a glimmer of hope. In a suit brought by a group called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the court ruled that under the state's current school-aid formula, the New York City school district does not receive enough money to provide a sound education. Although that ruling affected only New York City, if the state overhauls the aid formula --- as it has been ordered to do --- all urban districts might benefit.
On the other hand, true reform --- particularly in the state's current fiscal condition --- would mean providing less money for suburban districts. And state legislators have fought true reform for years.
Among the decisions the Rochester School Board will have to make: whether it should take what it gets in funding and cut programs accordingly, or fight for more. Although board members traditionally insist that the district needs more money, critics --- including Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson and other community leaders --- have charged that the district needs to do a better job with the money it already has. And some School Board members have been more aggressive than others in insisting on increased funding.
If the district is forced to cut personnel and programs, initiatives such as lowering class sizes in elementary schools could be pitted against specialized offerings such as the International Baccalaureate program and School of the Arts.
Following are profiles of the seven Democratic candidates and their comments on selected topics.
Since 1987, Howard Eagle has been a social studies teacher in the Rochester school district. But he's been a vocal community activist for much longer. And he's one of the school district's harshest critics.
A current target of his criticism is School Board member Rob Brown, characterized by Eagle in a series of July press releases as "a major obstacle to change and improvement" and an "arch racist."
Eagle says he's tired of the infighting on the School Board, but he insists he could function peacefully on a board that includes Brown. "I'm willing to work with anyone --- and that would include Rob Brown," he says. "It's probably important that we would be willing to compromise on issues but not on principle."
Brown isn't Eagle's only target. Board members in general are "not focused on educating children," he says. "They seem to be focused on everything else except that. They just don't understand, or perhaps don't care, about what needs to be done in terms of helping our children. For our campaign that's the bottom line --- improve student achievement."
A big part of achieving that bottom line, he says, is gaining more state and federal funding. He says the state's system for funding education, based mainly on property taxes, is flawed. "We were really glad to see the results of the [Campaign for Fiscal Equity] lawsuit in New York City. And we look forward to, hopefully, someone taking up that same struggle for the children of Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, Utica, Binghamton, so forth and so on. These are the children who need the resources most." It would be "intelligent for the district to seek more private funding," he says.
Parent involvement, Eagle says, has received plenty of lip service through the years. "But there's never been a distinct plan to engage parents," he says. "What happens for the most part is parents show up for meetings and they're given something packaged, something where the district is simply seeking their approval instead of their input."
Eagle wants to chair the board's Community and Intergovernmental Relations Committee. That committee, he says, "should represent a bully pulpit to really engage parents." He also says it would be important to "revisit the job descriptions" of the district's parent liaisons. "They should be going door to door getting input from parents," he says.
Eagle wants the position of attendance clerk reinstated, to enable the district to contact parents daily about students' attendance.
To boost achievement, he wants class size limited to 15 students in elementary school, 20 in high school. And he wants the district to drop its practice of social promotion, in which students move to the next grade level, regardless of achievement, when they reach a certain age. Social promotion should be eliminated at the earliest grade levels and replaced with academic support strategies, he says. "That way," he says, "social promotion will not be an issue in middle schools and high schools."
Eagle says that while the board shouldn't micromanage the superintendent, he feels the Gantt legislation is undemocratic. "[Previous superintendent] Cliff Janey was simply given a blank check," he says. "Things can spin out of control if there's no oversight, and this board had just about come to that."
"I support that concept of eliminating micromanagement," he says. "On the other hand, this bill is dangerous in terms of a super majority being needed to remove a super. Even the idea of a super being able to enter into contracts without board approval is dangerous. The whole bill is just another step in chipping away at the power of the board. Our people have a right to choose their representatives on the board. Why would we vote if we're voting for paper tigers?"
Eagle's 20 years of experience as a community activist have enabled him to build relationships with community leaders and organizations, he says. "I plan to draw on that, to turn to these people for assistance. I would like to build coalitions --- not talkathons --- with religious leaders, business leaders, parents, young people."
Under state law, Eagle would have to give up his position as a Rochester teacher if he were elected to the School Board. That's "a sacrifice I'm willing to make if I have to," he says. "But much like Tim Mains on City Council, I don't necessarily feel I should have to do that if I'm elected. And that's a fight I'd be willing to take to the courts."
A Penfield High School graduate, Eagle has an associate's degree in criminal justice from Monroe Community College and a bachelor's (political science) and master's (education) from SUNY Brockport.
One year out of college (University of Rochester, bachelor's in political science), Malik Evans has already built up a lengthy resume of community service (Urban League Youth of the Year, City-County Youth Council chair, Center for Youth as Resources National Board, Monroe County Fair Association executive board, Mayor's Entertainment Task Force, Rochester Area Community Foundation Youth and Families Priorities Panel).
He was an honors graduate at Wilson Magnet High School and tutored elementary-school students while he was in high school and at the UR. He has been a special assistant to City Councilmember Wade Norwood, participated in an M&T Bank management-development program, and is now a manager with M&T.
He's running for School Board, he says, because "I'm proud to be a Rochester City School District graduate, and I know how important education is."
"If we're going to save this city," says Evans, high-quality schools are critical. "You can't live in a city where there aren't strong schools. I have a vested interest: If I'm going to be a homeowner, I want strong schools --- and not just pockets of strong schools... School 12, Wilson Magnet School...."
In his rapid-fire answers during an interview, he repeatedly refers to the need for a stronger relationship between the school district and the community. The school district, he says, faces a "rough road" over the next several years. "We need to use the resources we have in this community," he says, "the businesses, the people. We need to rally the people."
And, he says, "the relationship between City Hall and the School Board has to be strengthened. Has to be strengthened."
The district's high poverty level, and the problems that grow out of that poverty, are "definitely a factor" in student achievement, he says. The low achievement level is due "probably about 75 percent to community problems, to what's happening outside school," he says. "What happens in the classroom is affected by what's happening at home."
Many students "feel peer pressure" not to achieve, says Evans. "We're not cultivating the culture of education." "I would love to have, every month, a pop-culture star" visit schools and talk about the importance of education, he says.
But schools must improve as well, says Evans. Among the challenges: "The stigma, the labels many of the students have been given. We have to get out of the business of devaluing our kids."
"Schools need to set expectations and be consistent," says Evans. "And I believe in discipline."
Teachers need to do more to help students having trouble with schoolwork, he says. "If I'm frustrated in the Course II math class, I am going to leave school. I'm mentoring a kid who missed 70 days of school. Seventy days! He told me he just got frustrated."
He wants the district to have "parent liaisons to be advocates for the parents, to go with parents to teacher conferences."
On Assemblymember David Gantt's proposal to strengthen the powers of the superintendent, Evans says: "I think it's been revised sufficiently that I support it."
If he were a board member and a tight budget forced him to choose between such programs as the Wilson International Baccalaureate and low class sizes? "I would have to see the data" on the effectiveness of each, he says, "so I could justify my vote. But I hope and pray that we won't have to make that decision."
He would support an expansion of the Urban-Suburban Transfer Program, he says, to give more students a chance to attend schools with a low poverty rate. "But what would do more," he says, "would be to fix the schools we have."
"The key for us," he says, "is to make the city schools so good that students don't want to go anywhere else."
Of all the primary candidates, Woody Hammond has the most extensive inside experience with the Rochester school district. He has a master's degree in urban education from SUNY Brockport and worked for the Rochester district for more than 30 years: as a teacher and, from 1981 to 2002, when he retired, as an administrator. For 11 years he directed the district's Title I program (a federally funded program for disadvantaged children) and the last 10 years he directed the Office of Grants Development and Compliance. He's now an independent education consultant.
One of the strengths he would bring to the board, he says, is his service with the district, developing instructional programs, writing grants, and directing the district's Office of Parent and Community Involvement. It is, he says, "an experience of school improvement, data collection, and analysis."
He accuses the School Board and the district of "not holding employees accountable." And asked if he believes Rochester teachers should be paid more, he responds: "If you hook it to accountability, they need to be paid more." Given the district's high poverty level, can an individual teacher be held responsible for students' achievement? "No," he says, "but an individual team can."
He also says the district and the board haven't based decisions about budgets and programs on hard data. The board's decisions, he says, "are usually based on information that the staff gives them."
"We have to use the money in a more effective manner," he says. "You can't, because something looks and sounds good, just implement new programs."
He envisions a strong board and wants an analysis of current board operations, particularly the role of board committees. He wants the board to "reinstate the personnel committee," which, he says, should serve as "a strong advisory committee." He would add parents to board committees. And, he says, "we might consider a committee that includes the general public as well as parents."
His work with the district has given him a close look at the district's low student achievement. "Last year, two-thirds of our schools were in need of improvement," he says. "Rochester is the second neediest district in the state. Our poverty base is over 85 percent. Over 50 percent of our students need academic intervention services."
When critics complain about the district's high per-pupil cost, he says, they fail to recognize the impact of the costs of special education.
The concentrated poverty of the district's students is "extremely important," he says. "It's not that poor kids are not capable of learning, but opportunities for learning are not the same."
Boosting achievement, he says, will require extensive programs, and extensive participation by the community as a whole. "We don't have the proper summer programs," he says. "We need wrap-around programs, make learning available 12 months a year."
He is concerned that budget problems have led to the district's eliminating some of its counselors. "We need to begin to focus on prevention," says Hammond. "We need social-work support services in elementary schools. We need to invest in additional psychologists, counselors, and at a much earlier age."
And, he says, the district needs to have partnerships --- partnerships with parents, with businesses. "We need support services, summer camps, evening programs, Boys and Girls Clubs, partnerships. Without that, schools cannot do it. They simply cannot do it. The amount of need is astronomical."
The son of Puerto Rican immigrants, David Perez was born in Rochester, grew up on Joseph Avenue, and is an alumnus of the Rochester school district. He attended School 22 elementary school, East Junior-Senior High, and graduated with honors from Edison in 1989. He has a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Clarkson University, was an engineer at Pulsafeeder and an engineer and software quality-assurance manager at Xerox, and is now an account executive at Time-Warner. He and his wife have a 13-month-old daughter.
His professional background influences his discussion of the school district and School Board; business references --- "core values, methodologies, processes" --- are frequent, whether he's talking about the district's achievement problems or the friction on the School Board. In dealing with financial problems, he says, the district should "manage risks and track successes." The board should "apply business methods to reach consensus."
But he is eloquent in discussing the challenges facing many students in the Rochester district. His own experience is as that of growing up in a stable family who valued education, and he knows that isn't the case for all students. The district's high level of poverty is a "big issue," he says. He grew up "in a neighborhood with kids whose fathers did not work, who had to sleep on sofas," and he talks about "the challenges mothers have working two or three jobs."
Through his membership in the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the Clarkson Alumni Association, the Hispanic Association of Professional Advancement, and the Rochester school district's "Project Success," he has worked with at-risk inner-city youths. He has been a student mentor through the Red Cross tutoring program.
And he believes that as a School Board member, he could be a role model for Rochester students and that his own student experience would be a plus. He talks about the importance of internships, for instance: He had a "hugely valuable" student internship with Delco, he says. "It taught me professional dress and behavior, how to manage money, how to not be intimidated asking questions."
The school district, says Perez, needs to engage businesses and private organizations in helping students, improving achievement, and improving district operations. He cites a New York City program that has brought in corporate executives to give advice. "Schools are not a business," he adds, but the district can learn from businesses and from people and organizations outside the field of education.
He's concerned about "gaps between students and parents, and parents and teachers." The district needs to ensure "that every student who comes to school has an adult responsible for him," he says, and it needs to get help from outside organizations to do that. Volunteers, working as advocates for parents, might be able to bridge the gap between the district and parents who are intimidated or suspicious of teachers, he says --- might be able, for example, "to talk to parents about the problems teachers face."
In making decisions about budget cuts, he would "vote 'no' to program cuts in unified arts and organized athletics." And, he says, he has two brothers-in-law and a sister-in-law who went to Wilson, and he's a "strong supporter of magnet schools."
On the role and power of the School Board: "The board should allow the superintendent to do the job. Don't compromise the role of the superintendent."
A computer programmer, parent, and Army Reservist, Willa Powell served on the school board from 1998 to 2001. But in an unusual move, Democratic Party leaders failed to endorse her for a second term.
During her School Board service, her reputation was that of a quiet but knowledgeable, hard-working member. During the Democratic Committee's selection process in 2001, however, she was, in her words, both naïve and "a lackluster candidate."
"I knew people didn't know what I had accomplished on the board," she says, "and I took a certain amount of pride in that." The work of an effective board member isn't always well known, she says. And, she says, "I was politically vulnerable. I had no solid constituency. I did not go out of my way to develop a personal following."
Rather than nominating Powell to run for a second term, the Democratic Committee chose an outspoken activist, St. John Fisher professor Jim Bowers.
And during her board tenure, she says, "I had lost some of my sense of purpose," suffering from an affliction that often hits elected officials. "I had begun to think as an insider," she says. Presented with concerns from parents and other members of the public, she found herself "giving excuses for the administration," she says: "'These are the reasons why we can't do that....'"
"It gradually dawned on me," she says, "that I was reflecting the institution." Now she's eager to rejoin the board. "The opportunity to inject innovation into the board is really exciting to me," she says. And if she's elected, she says, she wants to push for change. "We need to have a board that is willing to try something totally new. We have to be prepared to be the revolutionaries within the system if need be."
And Powell says she thinks she can be a "bridge" between factions on the board. "I hope we can put aside those factions," she says.
Powell has a bachelor's degree in accounting from RIT, is a captain in the Army Reserves, and has worked as programmer analyst at Chase Manhattan and as a contract programmer for RG&E, the University of Rochester, Xerox, and Strong Hospital. Her community activities include serving as treasurer of the national Citizens for Midwifery organization, and service in Rochester schools' parent-teacher organizations. Her children attend Rochester's School 23 and School of the Arts.
Among the efforts she's proud of from her previous service on the School Board is chairing a board committee that helped develop a new school-choice policy for the district. It will give parents more real choice for their children, as well as permit them to attend schools closer to their homes.
On the district's finances: "I'm hopeful but not overly optimistic about the Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling," says Powell. It's possible that it will result in a budget formula that will give urban districts more state aid, says Powell, but it's also possible that politics will intervene. And, she adds, given the state's financial condition, "what if the pie is smaller?"
"My concern," she says, "is for the district to develop a contingency plan to prepare for the worst." In addition, she says, the board should exercise more oversight of the district's finances. "Previously," she says, "there was a willingness to defer to the staff."
On the school district's "culture": The district's central administrative office, she says, has too many "old-timers who are invested in the old system, people who are protecting their own piece of turf," and too few people willing to take chances on new directions. Among her suggestions for change: principals, not the district's personnel office, should hire their own teachers.
On academic achievement: "I'm hopeful that some of the work done in the past few years --- universal pre-kindergarten, full-day kindergarten, class size reduction --- will show positive results in K-4," says Powell. "Failing that, it's back to the drawing board."
"We need to be doing elementary schools better than we have historically," says Powell. "Middle-class kids will always succeed, whether they stay in the city or go to the suburbs."
Current School Board president Shirley Thompson is completing her first term on the board. An assistant director of Volunteer Development and Community Outreach at the Greater Rochester Red Cross chapter, Thompson is a Licensed Practical Nurse who is studying sociology at Empire State College. She has been active in the Group 14621 community organization and served on the school district's committee to recommend a redesign for Franklin High School.
As a School Board member, she says, "I don't have all the answers, but I see myself as a cross-pollinator," someone who can foster the sharing of information among the board factions. It will be important, she says, "to find ways to work through the differences that there will be --- and when we can't reach consensus, to recognize that the majority rules, so that the community won't experience the kind of negativity we've experienced in the past 18 months."
"Board members need to understand the value of team work," says Thompson, "and to understand that it doesn't squelch individuality."
Like several other candidates, Thompson talks about the need for better "process" as the board does its work. "We need to identify what's important," she says, "and then track the district's response." She was on the board during the district's difficult fiscal crisis in 2001, when board members learned late in the game the extent of the district's problems. "We have put in place processes and systems" to insure that board members are better informed, she says.
She fleshes out the bureaucratic language: The goal is "to make sure that the information we receive [from district staff] is what we need," she says, "and is in a form that is digestible." That has not always been the case, she says.
For example: When district administrators proposed moving back to a kindergarten-6th grade, 7th-12th-grade system, "it was clear to several of us that it was a good concept," says Thompson, "but we didn't have enough nuts and bolts. It was our responsibility to kick the tires, not just say, 'That's a good concept.'"
One of the criticisms of some past School Boards is that they tried to do too much tire-kicking, that they tried to second-guess the superintendent too frequently, to micromanage the district.
That's a temptation many board members experience, says Thompson, particularly when it comes to what she calls "individual fixes." "You get a call from a parent, a member of the community, about a problem, and you want to fix it." If the district had a process that let the community know what to do and who to contact when there were problems, board members would be less likely to try to micromanage, Thompson says.
Board members are still divided over the issue of the board's power and responsibilities, and that will continue, no matter who is elected. Assemblyman David Gantt's proposal to clarify --- and limit --- the board's power is still an issue. Thompson says she supports the Gantt legislation "in concept" --- "because we need to have the discussion about what is the board's role."
Different board members, Thompson notes, have different ideas about the board's role, and about its goals. Among Thompson's own goals for next year:
• "To hammer out the superintendent's goals for academic achievement";
• "To strengthen ourselves as a body, to coordinate and communicate information across our committees";
• "To engage and exhort the community to step up, to put in place a way for people to act on their interest" in helping the district;
• To deal effectively with financial challenges. "We don't expect we'll get any more state funding than this year," says Thompson, "so we need to find private funding, multi-year funding. And we need to work with CFE."
To address the problem of academic achievement, Thompson says, the district needs to recognize what's causing the problem: "Too many urban families do not have the tools and the support to help their children. We can talk all we want about parent involvement. If we don't provide them with the tools, it's not going to happen."
Likewise, she says, "If we talk about professional development [for teachers and principals] but don't have a process, have workshops" and make sure that the district sees evidence that staff are using what they have learned, the talk will be hollow.
"If we can rally the community.... It's going to take money, and in-kind services," says Thompson, "and a mindset in this community that it's not the parents against the board against the community. We're all in this together."
How can the board get more community involvement and funding? "We must put our successes out there," says Thompson, "and help the funders understand the connection between our plight and theirs."
"You can't run from the problem," says Thompson. "We need to help people understand that their future is very connected to the future of our students. And we need to paint the picture of what the future could be if we work together."
A familiar face to school district administrators and board members, Glenny Williams began his advocacy work in 1972 as chairperson of the FIGHT organization's education committee. "I was on the streets with FIGHT, then earned a graduate degree," a master's from Carnegie Mellon. "Since then," he says, "I've been working in the vineyards."
He was active in the formation of Wilson Commencement Park, and his current activities include the Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning. Williams speaks urgently about the level of lead in the blood of many inner-city children, the impact lead poisoning has on children's intellectual ability and education.
He is a long-time, vocal critic of the district, whose record he describes as "atrocious": "financial crisis after financial crisis... continued deterioration in language arts, SATs, graduation rates," low parent participation, high dropout rates. The School Board has to be held accountable for that record, he says, since the board hires the superintendent.
And he sides with board members who want a powerful board. He objects to Assemblyman David Gantt's proposal to give more power to the superintendent. The Gantt legislation, says Williams, takes away some of the board's accountability to the public. "Citizens don't vote on budgets," he says. "They can't hire the superintendent."
Gantt's legislation is "a political proposal, a power proposal," he says. "I haven't seen David Gantt introduce a single proposal that improves reading."
The board should not have its power reduced, he says, and it should have its own staff, to do audits, for example. "We should investigate things," he says, "check them out independently."
A major focus of his campaign is his concern that parents are alienated from the district. "We have to re-engage the parents," he says. "This district is 80 percent black and brown, and those two groups are the most alienated in the country. We have to take some time to earn their trust."
He would have ombudsmen for each area of the city, parent liaisons who would report to the board rather than to the superintendent or other administrators. And, he says, "I would have 'customer cards' in every school, for parents to fill out and tell us what they're concerned about." The cards would go to the board, and the comments would become part of the evaluation of teachers and principals.
"The drop-out rate," he says, "is usually as much about relationships as it is about what's happening in the buildings." If the district builds relationships with the black community, says Williams, it can convince students that education "is in their vested interest."
"I want real partnerships with parents, teachers, businesses," he says. "We've used the power of the institution to overwhelm parents."
He wants the district to train school sentries to work with small groups of students, "not just to stop stuff, but to work with the students and try to prevent things from happening."
On the district's financial crisis: The district and the board should move swiftly to see that Rochester benefits from the CFE judgment, he says. "We should do anything," he says, "letters of support, get our parents to beg for a new formula...."
"That excites me," says Williams, "because there could be new dollars for urban education."
Regardless of what happens with the CFE judgment, says Williams, "we should streamline what we're doing, maybe for the short term cut some activity or other."
"From pre-school to 4th grade is crucial," he says. He would push for no more than 18 children in a class.
Also important to Williams: "Character education in the elementary schools --- teaching community values, community standards."
And, he says, the district needs to pattern its programs to meet the needs of its students. "We know, because the teachers tell us, that too many students come to school not knowing their colors, not knowing how to tie their shoes," says Williams. "We have to teach them. Therefore, we have to have small class sizes."
He supports "high-stakes testing," as low as fourth grade. Students who can't pass the tests, he says, should be held back until they can. "They'll be competing against kids from the suburbs for jobs," says Williams. "If we agree that black and brown children are born with the natural abilities of other kids, it's our responsibility to restructure our institutions" to educate them well.
Primary elections will be held for several elected offices in Monroe County on September 9. Among them: four seats on the Rochester School Board. To vote in the School Board primary, you must be a city resident and a registered Democrat. Polling hours will be noon to 9 p.m. Information: Monroe County Board of Elections, 428-4550 (TDD: 428-2390).
City's coverage of the Greater Rochester primaries will continue next week with articles on town supervisor races and endorsements for Rochester School Board.