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The great divide: behind the School Board anger

by and

The Rochester School Board entered the new year with one of the deepest --- and angriest --- divisions in recent history. And while to outsiders the rancor may seem rooted in personality differences and power struggles, the division is more significant than that.

            All seven School Board members are Democrats, but some of them disagree sharply on substantive issues, including the role of the board, the board's relationship with the superintendent, and the district's budget.

            The latest conflict centered on seemingly esoteric subjects: how often the board should elect a president and what powers the president should have. Previously, the board has chosen officers every two years. In December, in the middle of President Joanne Giuffrida's two-year term, the board voted to amend its bylaws and hold the election every year, effective this January.

            And last week, in a 4-3 vote, the board elected Vice President Shirley Thompson to replace Giuffrida. The board also weakened the power of the president, requiring majority approval of many actions, such as committee appointments.

            Giuffrida and her supporters on the board --- Darrell Porter and Jim Bowers --- were furious. The move, Giuffrida said in a City interview later in the week, was "an act of violence."

            The changes have fueled the open hostility between the board's two factions. And that may make it harder for the board to deal with the tough issues it faces: hiring a new superintendent, raising student achievement, considering middle-school restructuring, and passing a new budget.

            The rancor couldalso make it harder to attract a new superintendent and to get adequate funding from the city and the state.

            Given its challenges, why can't the board get along? Was last week's election simply a destructive personality contest? For the school district --- its students, its faculty, its parents --- does it matter whether the president serves for one year or two? Does it matter who is president?

To the members of the two factions, it matters a lot. Giuffrida says having elections every year will be disruptive, that board members interested in being president will spend too much time every year trying to line up supporters. Rob Brown, who was elected vice president last week, insists that the shorter term will force the president "to maintain the confidence of a majority of the board."

            There may be value in each position. And as with other areas of government, a structure that works well with one set of elected officials may be a mess with another. But in terms of the impact on the public, bylaws and presidential terms are probably not the most important issue.

            Who is president, on the other hand, matters under any structure. Temperament, leadership ability, talent for creating consensus: All affect the School Board and the school district.

            In addition, the outcome of a board election is a reflection of the strength of one faction over another. If it holds together, the board's current majority --- Thompson, Brown, Bolgen Vargas, and Dwight Cook --- will set budget priorities. It will determine how the board interacts with the superintendent.

            How closely should the board oversee the superintendent, for example? What some board members believe is prudent oversight, is to others interference: "whipping the superintendent around," in Brown's words.

            Giuffrida is convinced that the board was too hands-off during the years preceding her presidency, when Vargas was president and Brown was vice president. Under their leadership, Giuffrida said in an interview last week, "the board was emasculated."

            "We did not receive relevant information from the superintendent and his staff," she said. "We did not conduct any serious business in our board meetings, and the committees were not very active."

            "We now have Mr. Brown as the vice president again," said Giuffrida, "and I think we have to all be careful that this board is not emasculated again. But the likelihood of that happening with me and Bowers [on the board] is not too great. We have much more access to information and to the media and are willing to speak up about things. I don't think they'll be able to pull off what they pulled off for four years previous."

            Brown said last week that he wouldn't get into a he-said/she-said argument in the media. It's clear, however, that both he and Thompson felt Giuffrida sometimes acted on her own, disregarding the opinions of at least some other board members.

            The board has to operate out of a consensus, Brown said last week. "What we became painfully aware of in the last year," he said, is that a term of two years gave presidents "essentially an insulated period" of more than a year. During that time, presidents don't have to seek re-election, and "you can be completely insensitive to the views of the majority of the board members," he said. "You can go off on your own tune."

            Thompson said the board's actions don't reflect a vendetta against Giuffrida. But, she said, the board members who voted for change were concerned about leadership.

            "There are a couple of important roles that the leader of the board should play," she said. "One is to give a balanced representation of the board. We've got seven people. At any given time, we have at least two perspectives on any issue. It's important for board leadership to make sure those perspectives are out there. Which is not to say that anyone needs to suppress their personal opinion, but neither should one promote that as being the final and correct position, if you will."

            Under Giuffrida, Thompson said, the board president's opinion was sometimes presented as a directive, "and anyone who disagrees with it is an obstructionist."

            Under the new bylaws, the president will be more a facilitator than "some kind of elected quasi-executive," said Brown. "There's a substantive difference between the chief executive officer of, say, the city, who is elected, or the chief executive officer of the county, and the president of the County Legislature, the president of the City Council."

            The board needs to function in a way that the president is "the equivalent of the president of City Council," said Brown. "The chief executive officer is the superintendent."

A major point of contention for the board has been the record --- and the settlement package --- of former Superintendent Clifford Janey. Giuffrida describes Janey as "an ineffective superintendent who spent his time here building a national reputation for himself while performance in our Rochester schools deteriorated."

            "In many categories of student achievement," she said, "we are at the bottom of the Big Five, and there's no excuse for that --- in a community with our resources --- that we're doing worse than New York City or Buffalo. But we are, statistically."

            Brown says Janey was a strong superintendent whose record warranted the board's support, not its wrath. "There are no examples in the United States of America of successful urban school districts," he said. "When you see that kind of phenomena, I think you have to look at the root causes of the problems, so that you can step outside the box of traditional tricks and solutions, all of which have been tried in some place or another."

            "We haven't had an inventive way to deal with this problem in years," Brown said. The board, he said, needs to reach a consensus with the superintendent "and ultimately, the entire metropolitan community, or key players in the community" on "how we beat the traditional problems of urban schools in the City of Rochester, given the fact that our resources are limited."

            And there, too, there may be dissension. While all board members are dedicated to improving student achievement, there is disagreement over the district's resources and programs. Giuffrida, like Mayor Bill Johnson, insists that the district has to do a better job with the resources it has. Brown insists that the district must have more resources to do a better job.

            That disagreement became crystallized last winter in discussions about the district's budget. In interviews with this newspaper, Brown argued that the district needed to be able to provide a good education for its poorest students --- and must be "a viable district for middle-class people."

            The test, he said, should be "whether we're delivering a Brighton-quality education for all children."

            Giuffrida disagreed. The district may not be able to offer a Brighton-quality education, she said. "We have to start with what we can afford. What in the school program is essential? And then we look at how much money we have left and what we can add on."

            To Giuffrida, that could mean funding small class sizes and pre-school programs, but cutting back funding for such things as magnet schools.

            Substantive differences aren't unusual in elected bodies like school boards. And for Rochester, an open discussion of them, however heated, could engage the public in a discussion on the future of the school district. The personal animosity on the board, however, could overshadow such discussion, and it could turn city residents and important elected officials against the district itself. That personal animosity, unfortunately, seems to be growing.