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'This isn't working'

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Education was an important issue for Lovely Warren when she first ran for mayor in 2013. But when she was asked whether she would pursue mayoral control of city schools, something that had been hotly contested several years earlier, her answer was no.

A lot has changed since then. Now Warren is pushing state officials to make a "complete, structural, systematic change" in the district – one that might include involving her, in some way, in the district's operations.

It's clear that Warren has been studying the issue of school district governance. In a lengthy interview last week, she cited reports on school district operations and talked about successful school district and community efforts in other parts of the country.

Warren still says she isn't seeking mayoral control. Instead, she talks about the possibility of a "mayoral partnership" with the district, which she says could take many different forms. And in the interview, she referred several times to the need to figure out first what Rochester's children need.

She's obviously unhappy with the current school board and its inability to work together. In the interview, Warren noted that the both the district's budget and its response to the scathing report by Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino failed to receive the support of all board members.

PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON


The revolving door of superintendents has also frustrated Warren. It's hard to partner with the district when the leadership keeps changing, she said. And she's facing the prospect of another new superintendent and more new board members just months from now.

Asked if she thought the school board could bring about the changes she envisions, or implement the recommendations called for in Aquino's report, she said, "No, they can't."

But her principal concern is not this particular school board, she said. It's the system itself, in which an elected school board hires a superintendent, who runs the district. That system is broken, she said.

"I'm not saying that an elected school board doesn't work on some levels," Warren said. "I'm saying that structurally, this design as is currently being implemented is not something that works for Rochester's children."

"A complete, structural, systematic change in my mind is what is needed here," she said. "So many children are falling victim to a system. In business, we wouldn't allow it to happen. In suburban neighborhoods, we wouldn't allow it to happen."

Warren agrees that some Rochester schools are doing well. Those schools have strong principals, she said, and they have teachers in leadership positions who are "working with parents as partners."

But she also cited schools that went "from having a very strong principal to having an interim person to having really no direction."

That opens the door to chaos, she said, and "when we're talking about children's lives, you can't allow chaos to ensue. We can't."

City government has already been partnering with the school district in some areas, providing after-school programs at some recreation centers, for instance. "However," Warren said, "those are not transformative things. Those are one-offs."

And she talked about her own frustrations dealing with the district. She has had what she called "decent relationships" with previous superintendents, but, she said, "As mayor, I've had in six years six different superintendents."

Warren wants State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and the Board of Regents to think seriously about some type of structural change. And in her call for structural change, she has the support of Roc the Future, a coalition of about 60 area individuals, business and community leaders, and nonprofits. In a letter Roc the Future sent to Elia on March 1, Warren and other RTF participants said they have no confidence in the district's leadership. The current school system, they said, "is broken and must be replaced."

In addition to signing the letter, Warren has talked to Elia directly. "I've expressed this to her," Warren said. "She has to do something. Doing nothing is not an option."

Elia can't change the structure of the Rochester school district on her own. That would require action by the state legislature. Elia could add her weight to Warren's call, though.

But Elia could prefer to appoint a monitor, someone who would have temporary oversight of the district and who might help stabilize it. There could be some advantages to that approach, because it wouldn't mean a complete disruption of the system, even though Warren and many people seem convinced that's exactly what's needed.

Some scholars of urban school districts also believe that structural change is key. "If you're dealing with a district that isn't doing well," Hunter College Professor Joe Viteritti said in a phone interview last week, "the first thing you need is change. You can't do anything without change."

Viteritti has been special assistant to New York City's schools chancellor and has served as advisor to Chicago and Boston superintendents. His book "When Mayors Take Charge" looks at the experience of mayoral control in several large cities.

There's no guarantee that student achievement will improve under mayoral control, Viteritti said, but it shifts the accountability for the city's education system to one person: the mayor. Perhaps more important, school systems like Rochester's, which can't raise its own taxes, are always in a battle with their city over money.

"The real problem with that is that they have less of a stake in investing in the school system because they don't have a stake in it," Viteritti said. "That's a disconnect." Under some forms of mayoral control, city governments tend to increase their spending on schools rather than try to cut it, he said.  

Though Warren is not easily intimidated, a major change in the leadership structure, regardless of what it's called, will be met with fierce resistance. Already there is a petition circulating against more state intervention in the Rochester school system.

In the interview last week, Warren talked about her concerns about the district and the reasons she's pushing for structural change. Portions of that interview follow, edited here for space and clarity.

PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON

CITY: What, in your view, is the best way to improve the Rochester City School District?

WARREN: The best way to improve the district is literally through a redesign, a design that focuses more on children and their needs than on adults. When I say "redesign," it's really taking a step back as a community and figuring out what our children are facing on a daily basis, and how we best help them succeed. We've done that on a micro level when it comes to certain schools like East, School 17, School 9, and with Pre-K-3 and Pre-K-4.

I'm not saying that an elected school board doesn't work on some levels. I'm saying that structurally, this design is not something that works for Rochester's children.

To have different superintendents that have different visions and different paths forward is a problem not only for the people who work there, it's a problem for children and parents to know what direction the district is going in.

At one point in time, people believed that K-12 schools were a great thing. Then somebody else came in and believed that K-8 schools were great. And so when you have that sort of confusion that happens every two years, there really is no direction that people envision, that people can rally around. It's not fair to parents, it's not fair to students, it's not fair to administrators, and it's not fair to the board, really. Overall, that structure is what we're talking about.

What do you think is at the root of the problem?

I can't pinpoint it and say that it's one thing that's the problem, except for "the entire system."

Consistency, direction, leadership, a vision, and the micromanaging of the district are challenges. Do I listen to seven board members because they're there or do I listen to the superintendent, who is in charge of the day-to-day operations?

You have a situation where no corporation could function like that, with a board that constantly guides the day-to-day decision making and leaves the CEO basically just a figurehead. It's complete dysfunction.

You've cited East and School 17 as community schools embracing a wrap-around approach to learning. Is that the direction the district should take?

Some people believe that we shouldn't be everything to everybody. Unfortunately things change, and that's one of the things that changed.

At one point in time, city government was only expected to collect taxes and make sure that the trash was picked up, and when someone called the police officer or firefighter, that they were there, and that those basic, essential services were consistent across the board.

But over time, government has been held to a standard where we are providing social supports, social services, after-school programming, recreation services, and housing options. Things have changed. We have to be willing to change with it.

As you've said, we all recognize there's a problem. How do we solve it? Or is it premature to ask that?

I think that what Roc the Future was looking at was that the commissioner has all the information, right? She's best equipped with, as the commissioner of education, to say: This is what I need the community to help me implement and be a partner with.

But there have to be some changes here. I don't think that anyone wants to lay out a specific vision and plan without having the authority do so, and the authority to implement it. The only body that has that power is the state legislature and the commissioner.

The commissioner can't do this by herself, but she can set out a vision of what she believes can happen and go to the state legislature, and ask the community to support her in that.

After Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino released his report, people kept saying, 'We've spent years nibbling around the edges of the district's problems and we need to do something radically different.' They said we need big ideas. What are the big ideas?

A single option is not the answer to the problem, right? So you go to community schools as a base: That can be utilized in some fashion with schools that are in trouble and need wrap-around services. That's an option.

Going to a magnet school, where you have some regional draw for science and technology, for arts, or for different technology programs; partnering with EPO's like the universities and all that: Those are all just nibbling around the edges. Some of it will work; some of it may not work. And at this point in time, I think we all have to recognize that our children are not experiments, and we've been experimenting with them.

There has to be a structural change here that creates an environment for learning and a path everyone can support, everyone can follow.

You have to look at the district as a whole and not in pieces. Pieces won't work.

The research shows that we're the most segregated city in the northeast, and one of the most segregated in the country. When I think of big ideas, I think of desegregation. Where do you stand on that?

The premise I struggle with as an African-American woman is the philosophy that people of color can't succeed without help from other people. And that's not true.

Before we talked about the desegregation of schools, we had many graduates of schools that just had children of color that were in poverty. The whole premise was that no one rises to low expectations.

Even before desegregation of schools, kids went to schools that were all students of color. They were expected to succeed. The whole point about segregation and desegregating schools was really about finances, it was really about having access to the same resources and the same opportunities as their white counterparts. That's what gets lost in the whole thing.

PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON

When we talk about fairness and equity, why are we asking a community of people to do it the hard way, without enough resources?

It's not a matter of resources. There's almost a billion dollars that's poured into this school district. The question needs to be: What are you putting your resources towards? The resources that you have. And are you utilizing those resources in the right way?

In the 15 years I've been covering the district, there've been probably a dozen different kinds of summits and reports and conferences, and everybody says, "We're gonna do this," "We're gonna get behind this," and "The time is now; this is the opportunity." And then a year later, it's not really working.

How are you going to keep this going? How do you prevent that from happening, when at the end of the day, a lot of these forces that you talk about hang on to their own pots?

In all of those scenarios, what's the one thing that's constant? The system. The system never changed. The one thing that stayed constant was the system.

And if the system refuses to change, then I don't care what you do, nothing will ever work. And that's the definition of insanity: We continue to do the same thing over and over again. We continue to introduce program after program after program into a system that's broken.

Over the years, there's been criticism directed at the board, directed at the district, a lot of it coming from City Hall – some of it clearly deserved, some of it not. But under a school district-mayoral partnership or mayoral control, all of that is gonna go in your direction.

It's a community problem. As I said the other day, the community is to blame, because nobody wants to take the weight of the failure. And so it's easy to point fingers.

It is easier to keep pointing fingers and say: Oh, well, it's your problem, it's your fault, it's this person's fault. And then, while we're pointing fingers at each other, nothing gets done.

It's all of our problem. It's all of our fault. And we can acknowledge that we all have a role to play in it. People will say, Okay, city, the neighborhoods aren't good enough; there's drugs and activity and there are buildings that need to be torn down and there's lead and other things. So you know what? The city has to own that. Our responsibility has to be the neighborhood.

School district: the failure is on you, because the kids aren't coming to school. They're not learning. So you own that.

Parents: you own the fact that if a child isn't in the classroom, they can't learn. You own the fact that there's trauma and other things happening in the home.

Community: you look at not-for-profit organizations that have gone from a $100,000 budget to a two million- and three million-dollar budget; are you trying to really solve poverty or solve the challenges, or are you trying to build your organization? And there's big money in poverty. When you look at the number of not-for-profit organizations and systems and social supports and all of this billions of dollars in this community that goes towards fixing a fixed population – so you own that.

There is enough blame to go around, but as long as we're pointing fingers at each other it never gets solved. And there's power in that, 'cause nobody takes the blame.

That's the challenge here. Nobody wants to be the person or the entity blamed, because they can always point to someone else whose problem it is. But in the end, it is all of our problem.

And if the state Education Commissioner agrees that structural change is necessary and that Rochester's mayor should be a big player in the new system?

If the commissioner came back and said, "Mayor, we want you to be more involved," we need to know what that looks like, because for me: I'm not going – and I don't think that it's fair to anyone – to take on a system that essentially you're set up to fail in.

In order to effectuate change, no one person can do it by themselves. Will there be an elected board? Are some members appointed by the mayor? Are some members appointed by the mayor, some of them elected? Who gets to appoint the superintendent? How do parents and the community play into that?

I would want to do it with a clear plan as to how the commissioner believes that we can be most effective on behalf of children. I don't want to just do something to do it. I want to do something to change the trajectory for our children. And if I don't see mayoral control as changing that trajectory, then I'm not willing to go there.

If there is a way that we can partner to change that trajectory, then I'm all in. Show me the road map to how you believe this can work. We'll figure out a way to do it that makes sense for the children and the parents of the city.