The biggest hurdle for the Rochester School Board candidates in the Democratic primary may be getting voters to see their differences. Both are solid candidates, well-educated and well-informed.
Van Henri White is an attorney in private practice with a law degree from GeorgetownUniversity. Allen Williams is a TIAA-CREF financial manager with an MBA in finance from the University of Chicago.
Both have children in city schools. Both are concerned about the district's low graduation and student performance rates. Both say they want greater financial accountability.
The problem is, everyone already knows those are the issues. Both White and Williams say they'll bring new ideas to the board to help solve the district's problems. But it's sometimes hard for non-incumbent candidates to appreciate the complexity of the issues. It's even harder to understand how slowly improvements take place. New board members learn quickly that it takes four votes to get anything accomplished, and it takes time to build alliances. It's hard for voters to assess first-time board candidates, since the candidates often change their opinions and soften their criticism after they've been on the board for a while.
In recent interviews with City, White and Williams discussed what they see as strengths and weaknesses of the board, Superintendent Manuel Rivera's accomplishments, and initiatives they hope to introduce if elected.
While in many areas the candidates' opinions overlap, there are some differences. The biggest: how they view the district's responsibilities beyond the classroom. White's vision is of a more outwardly aggressive district, trying to bring about change outside the school walls. Williams, whose style is more analytical, wants the district to focus on its primary mission: educating students.
White is the better known of the two, mostly for his civil-rights and school-safety cases. Representing the family of Stephanie Givens, a student who was fatally stabbed outside JeffersonHigh School, White sued the school district for wrongful death. He has also represented employees in discrimination cases.
If elected, he would no longer represent clients in cases involving the district. He is running for School Board, he says, because he felt he could be more effective on the board than through case-by-case litigation.
White is a former MonroeCounty assistant district attorney and later served as "crime czar" in the early years of former Mayor William Johnson's administration. He has his own talk-radio show on WDKX, and he has received some important endorsements: from City Council President Lois Giess and the Rochester Teacher's Association.
School safety is a major focus of White's campaign. The district hasn't taken security seriously enough, he says, and he charges that it underreports the number of violent incidents in schools. (The state recently designated two city schools, Charlotte and Jefferson, as "persistently dangerous.")
School violence, White says, is an indication of problems outside of the classroom, and the district needs to be more involved in supporting city neighborhoods, even if it means using some of the district's own funds.
For example, White says, lead inspection of city homes is moving too slowly. The city should hire more inspectors, he says, and the district should help pay for them.
"The district," says White, "has the moral, legal, strategic, and resource opportunity to take the leadership role."
White says that the School Board hasn't been able to articulate a clear vision to the community and that he can help the board do that.
He wants more intervention for students who are under-performing, especially for those whose health and truancy problems cause them to fall behind in reading and math. Poverty has made it harder to educate students, he says, and the district must ensure that it focuses its resources on the most troubled schools.
He supports the Children's Zone, a program proposed by Superintendent Manny Rivera that would provide intensive community support for families in the city's poorest neighborhoods: health care, parenting skills, addiction counseling, and job training.
Allen Williams was endorsed by the Monroe County Democratic Committee after School Board member Jeff Henley announced in June that he would not seek re-election to his seat.
His community involvement includes service on several local boards, including ARC of Monroe County, the Landmark Society, and Friends of the Rochester Public Library. Where White uses his professional background to focus on school safety, Williams uses his to talk about fiscal oversight. "I have a skill set in financial management," he says, "and the district works with a $600 million annual budget. Plus they will be spending an additional $1.2 billion over the next 10 to 15 years [on modernizing schools]. No one has the finance and accounting experience that I do to provide the additional oversight."
He charges that the district and the superintendent have failed to establishing clear goals with benchmarks that measure progress. He agrees that the district has been successful with schools like WilsonAcademy and School of the Arts --- but says it is having trouble duplicating that success in all schools.
He credits Superintendent Manny Rivera with getting more funding for the district through private sources and grants, but he says the low graduation rate continues to be the district's most persistent problem, one that begins as far back as first grade. To improve the graduation rate, Williams says, the district should consider more alternative and vocational education programs. Rochester-area companies have technical jobs with good salaries, he notes, some of which are going unfilled.
Though he supports the Children's Zone, Williams says the district shouldn't take the primary role in implementing it, and it shouldn't use its funds to support it. Assuming the community's social-service responsibilities is outside the district's mission, he says.
But he does support alternatives to parent-teacher nights to get more parents involved. "Maybe," he says, "we have some type of liaison who goes to the home and says to the parent: 'We haven't seen you in a while. Is everything okay? Is there something we can do to get you more involved?' That's one thing we know for sure: that kids do better in school when they know there is someone who really cares about them. That's one thing that we as parents --- not as teachers or administrators --- but as parents, we have failed to do. We've got to be more involved."