Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren's announcement last week that she is seeking a pivotal role in the rescue efforts for the city's most troubled schools is the bold declaration that many people have anticipated since her election.
Warren ran her 2013 mayoral campaign in large part on education, but action had been conspicuously lacking until her announcement during her State of the City address on April 13.
What Warren wants is a decision-making role in city schools that go into state receivership. These are schools identified as "struggling" or "persistently struggling" under the state's new receivership law; 14 Rochester schools are currently on the path to receivership.
One of the options to turn around these schools is to pair them with proven outside entities, which assume almost total control of their individual schools — much like the University of Rochester-East High School partnership. East has its own superintendent, for example, and all school staff had to reapply for their jobs once the UR took over.
But Warren sees potential for chaos in the state process. The potential number of receivership schools in Rochester could lead to the appointment of multiple overseers with multiple strategies to improve their schools, she says.
"It just doesn't make sense," Warren said during an interview last week. "There will be children that will be left behind in that process."
"We need to really develop strategies and a realistic approach to turn around these schools that's not fragmented," she said. "That's really looking at a holistic sort of approach, and one where there is some accountability, to somebody."
Warren wrote the state Board of Regents and state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, asking for the appointment of a single independent receiver to oversee all eligible Rochester schools. The schools could be grouped together, she says, into an "achievement district." This would be a simplified, coordinated approach, Warren said, that would also make it easier to share resources and best practices.
But even if the state agrees with the idea of an achievement district, City Hall still would not have an official role to play in the proceedings, she said, unless the state gives it one.
Warren wants the authority to help craft the framework of the achievement district, she said, and to help pick the receiver who is hired to run the schools, and maybe to also help pick the superintendent of the new district.
City Hall cannot be the receiver, she said, because the chosen entity must have successful experience in turning around troubled schools.
Warren said that it remains to be seen if the city would have a longer-term role in the receivership schools beyond helping to set up the district and choose the receiver.
But anyone who was around for former mayor Bob Duffy's ill-fated bid for mayoral control of the city school district in 2010 knew as soon as Warren made her announcement that she's in for a fight. Despite Warren's assurances to the contrary, the head of the Rochester teachers union sees Warren's plan as a creeping form of mayoral control.
"Let's be transparent and call it what it is," said Adam Urbanski, head of the Rochester Teachers Association. "I thought we already had this debate, and the public said no to it."
Warren's plan is actually the opposite of what the school district should do, he said. Customization is key, Urbanski said, because every school and every student is different.
If Warren is really serious about improving students' performance in school, he said, she'll concentrate instead on making city streets and neighborhoods safe.
"Most kids found with weapons in school say they don't need them while they are in school," Urbanski said. "They need them to protect themselves on the way to and from school."
"Are we saying that the mayor has so mastered the running of this city, this becomes the logical next step?" he said.
Rochester school board President Van White said that he was blindsided by Warren's announcement, and that he's disappointed she chose this route.
"I thought we had worked hard to create an open and collaborative relationship," he said. "I would have thought she would have at least shared with the board the concerns she has that prompted her to do this."
Warren said that she shared her viewpoint with the board "in a roundabout way."
"This is not something that I have been, you know, keeping secret," she said. "I have spoken about it in many different ways and saying, 'Look, you know, I don't think we should have individual receivers for different schools."