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The Rochester school district and the change we need


Ten months ago, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia sent Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino to Rochester. His mission, in her words, was to “help the school board and district make sure the children are well served through improved teaching and learning.”

Elia has stuck to a deliberate process, having Aquino identify the school district’s problems and giving the board time to create a plan to fix them. But Aquino's scathing report blew a hole in the hull of the district, and many people have been calling for a change in governance, from an elected school board to something else. There's been no consensus, though, on what that change should be.
The Rochester school board has increasingly been the brunt of criticism, as state officials watch the performance by the district and the board. - FILE PHOTO
  • The Rochester school board has increasingly been the brunt of criticism, as state officials watch the performance by the district and the board.

The media have been reporting on the district’s problems for years. There’ve been countless forums, panel discussions, and special reports. In some respects, Aquino’s report simply rehashed what the public already knew.

But correcting the district’s problems has proved to be a superhuman challenge. Many people don’t want to step into this ring of fire, whether it's to serve on the school board, teach, or even offer outside support. They don’t want to deal with the constant criticism.

And the school board can sometimes be its own worst enemy. Aquino’s report was clear: The board must learn to operate as a unified body. Instead, infighting and dysfunction have reached a new high. During an outburst at a recent school board meeting, board member Beatriz LeBron launched into a highly personal attack on a parent activist in the audience. Board member Judith Davis decided not to participate in the search for a new superintendent because she didn’t like the process the board majority had chosen.

Occurrences like these, at this critical time, are having an impact. Many district parents have grown numb from the years of problems and are disengaged from the district. Some have found other options for their children; roughly 6,000 district students now attend charter schools, and that number is likely to grow.

City Councilmember Malik Evans, who is a former school board president, says he has tried to interest people in running for the board but hasn’t been successful. People he spoke with thought it was a career risk.

The district’s problems aren’t limited to the school board, though, and some of them are problems the board can’t solve. Rochester’s child poverty rate is among the highest in the country, and it’s getting worse. Roughly 80 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches. Many district parents are single mothers. Rochester’s schools are increasingly expected to do much more than teach.

Perhaps worst of all, many of Rochester’s children have to endure racism at nearly every turn. It impacts their home address, health, self-image, and how they think and learn. African-American students, especially males, have higher suspension rates, higher special-education classifications, and lower proficiency in math and English.

All of this has adversely impacted the city and surrounding communities. The poor performance in many city schools is a major concern for area business leaders looking for fresh talent. And while many young parents like living in the city, when their children reach school age, many pack up and move to the suburbs.

This is not the first time there’s been a clamor for change. In response, the district has tried closing schools and reopening them. It has reconfigured grades in some schools. It has lengthened the hours of instruction in many city schools.

But this time, there’s an opportunity for something bigger. Something bolder. Something that involves a change in the district's governance structure.

Mayor Lovely Warren and some community leaders have appealed to Commissioner Elia for action, but despite her own frustration, she has limited power. Elia can appoint a monitor for the district, says Jay Worona, general counsel for New York State Association of School Boards. This person would be Elia's eyes and ears in the district to see whether Aquino’s recommendations were being implemented correctly. But the monitor wouldn’t sit on the board or vote on policy issues.

The bolder changes would require action by the state legislature, Worona says. And while many people want something done soon, that may be difficult. The current legislative session ends June 19, and the next one doesn’t start until January 2020.

There are options, though, and this time, the community may be ready to take a serious look at them. Among the possibilities:

Mayoral control. In this controversial form of governance, a superintendent runs the day-to-day operations of the school district, reporting to the mayor. Its main attraction is that it makes one person, the mayor, accountable for the schools rather than a school board.

Another attractive feature: the superintendent usually reports to one person, the mayor, instead of a committee of bosses.

There are different forms of mayoral control, and some have a school board – elected, appointed, or a combination of both – that provides community input. At the top, however, the mayor is in charge.

Mayoral control seems to have worked in some cities and failed in others. Former Mayor Bob Duffy proposed it for Rochester in 2010, but he was met with loud community protests, and the state legislature didn’t pass bills establishing it here.

City Councilmember Evans, who was school board president at the time, was a strong opponent of mayoral control, and his view hasn’t changed much. Managing the district could overwhelm all of the city’s other responsibilities, he says.

So far, Warren has said she isn’t interested in mayoral control.

A state takeover. State officials could place the district under the supervision of another entity or individual, such as a control board, for a temporary period of time. In the end, the district would revert to its current form of governance – or to something new. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the state assumed control of the New Orleans school system, and most of the traditional public schools were converted into charter schools. Charters, however, remain controversial, and like traditional public schools, they can be high-performing or fail miserably.

A break-up of the district. The Rochester school district, Malik Evans suggests, is too big. Three or four smaller districts would be easier to manage effectively, he says. They could operate independently, with their own superintendents and school boards, and they could share some costs, such as transportation.

Dissolving the district. An even bolder option, Evans says, would be to get rid of the city school district and have city students attend suburban schools. Convincing city and suburban parents and residents that this is in the best interest of all children would be a challenge, however.

In a recent talk hosted by the online publication Rochester Beacon, former Newark, New Jersey, Superintendent Christopher Cerf made the point that parents don’t care whether a school is a traditional public school, a charter school, or a magnet school.

“They only care about works for them,” he said. And he posed this question: Can Rochester improve its schools by doing the same thing it’s been doing but doing it better, or does the district need to change?

The answer seems obvious. But with no consensus on how to change the district, it’s uncertain whether anything at all will happen. Meanwhile, Commissioner Elia has given the school board until June 6 to revise its plan to improve the district. And the board has hired a new superintendent, Terry Dade, who starts work on July 1.

That decision ends uncertainty about one area of the district’s leadership. But this year’s election could leave Dade with a school board that doesn’t resemble the one that hired him. Mayor Warren all but brushed aside the news of his selection, signaling that a new superintendent is not the change she had in mind.

“We have switched leaders before, and I’m not confident that by switching leaders we will change the outcomes for our children,” Warren said in an interview with WXXI. “The bottom line is we have a system that is in crisis, and the system needs to change.”

Maybe none of that matters, however. Maybe all the talk about change in school district governance isn’t the conversation the community should be having. Maybe it’s not just the district’s governance that needs to change. Maybe the community needs to change.