Over nearly four decades of community anguish over Rochester’s public schools’ poor and declining results, only one person has consistently been in the crosshairs of the Rochester City School District’s fiercest critics—Rochester Teachers Association president Adam Urbanski.
Critics accuse Urbanski of using his political clout as the head of a 3,600-member union to further goals that put teachers’ interests ahead of students, fighting to maintain a status quo that keeps the RCSD in a low-performing holding pattern and putting his own interests ahead of the community’s by hanging on to a lucrative job for far too long.
The Democrat & Chronicle’s Editorial Board has twice called for Urbanski’s exit, and recently added a call for board president Van White’s departure.
“Teachers are a scapegoat. The face on it is Urbanski,” the union leader says, citing the calls for his ouster.
While acknowledging the district’s ills, Urbanski rejects the notion that either he or district teachers are the cause. He points to the crushing poverty that plagues many students in a city that in 2015 was ranked poorest among all U.S. cities of its size and maintains that the district’s central bureaucracy is much to blame.
Most agree that concentrated poverty affects student performance, a reality reflected in the city’s schools. Every school in the Rochester district is eligible for Title I, a federal program that directs money to schools with high numbers of poor students. Almost 86 percent of RSCD students are eligible for the federal government’s free lunch program. To qualify for free lunch a family of four, a single mother with three children, for example, can have an annual household income of no more than $32,630.
Still, Urbanski’s critics maintain that regardless of students’ social stresses or central office deficiencies, poor teaching and the union’s failure to adequately root it out is at least as much to blame for the city’s public schools’ problems.
Urbanski has defenders too. Rochester attorney Robert Brown sees the RTA president as an unstinting advocate for city schools, pointing to tough times when Urbanski used his clout with state officials to secure school funding that elected officials had failed to deliver. Brown dismisses the scathing rebukes of the union leader as “a ridiculous formulation.”
A partner of Schatz Brown Glassman LLP, Brown served on the city’s board of education as a member and for a time as its vice president from the late 1990s through the early 2000s.
Blame heaped on Urbanski or the RTA is “cynical and irresponsible,” says Brown, who like Urbanski says factors such as poverty and lack of parent involvement play a far larger role in creating the district’s tribulations.
Between the fierce critics and staunch defenders is another group: those who damn the union leader with faint praise.
“Adam is good at his job, which is to advocate on behalf of his members. I don’t question his integrity, but he looks for ways to give his side an advantage,” says former Rochester Mayor William Johnson Jr.
Elected mayor in 1993, Johnson served three terms during which he sought unsuccessfully to bring the city’s schools under direct city control. At times he and Urbanski crossed swords.
“As a union head, the head of a teachers’ union, there is no one better,” says Edwin Lopez, who was the RCSD’s general counsel from 2011 to 2015 while Bolgen Vargas was superintendent.
In negotiations between Urbanski and Vargas, Urbanski was unhelpfully unbending in refusing to consider benefit concessions that Vargas saw as vital to the district’s financial health, Lopez adds.
A troubled past
Rochester’s public schools have long been troubled and roiled by many conflicting currents. While Urbanski has been a central figure in the district’s drama, he has hardly been the only figure to set its course.
I first interviewed Urbanski in 1986. The topic was an ambitious, recently sealed deal with the RTA and the city schools to kick off a school reform effort led by Urbanski and Superintendent Peter McWalters.
The agreement they struck for a three-year contract, which took effect in 1987, called for RCSD teachers to receive an immediate generous boost in pay in exchange for cooperating in a districtwide restructuring. That deal was lauded as groundbreaking and as a possible template for school improvement nationwide.
Meant to usher in a design called school-based management in which teachers, administrators and parents in each school would largely chart their own course, the Rochester reform gained wide attention, making unlikely national celebrities of Urbanski and McWalters. It also made them heroes to local business leaders including Wegmans Food Markets Inc. CEO Danny Wegman and former Hansford Industries CEO Skip Hansford, who backed and lent prestige to the effort.
Under the pact, teacher pay was boosted 40 percent. Annual salaries for starting teachers would rise from $23,000 to $29,000 in two years; by year two of the agreement, more than half of the district’s teachers would make $45,000 a year.
According to the Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany non-profit whose See Through New York database tracks public employee pay in the state, Rochester teachers’ current median annual salary is $59,880. It is roughly comparable, within a few thousand dollars, to what the other 18 Monroe County school districts pay teachers. Greece pays the most—a median salary of $72,100. Wheatland-Chili teachers’ median of $55,901 is the lowest.
A recurring complaint among Urbanski’s sternest opponents is that after he successfully bargained to reward teachers at the deal’s front end with an unprecedented boost in pay, the RTA failed to deliver the improvement the 40 percent raise was supposed to guarantee.
Ailing district performance
Whatever role Urbanski or the union he heads have played in determining the city schools’ fate, Rochester public schools have arguably not only failed to improve but have declined by measures such as standardized test scores and graduation rates.
In 2017, for example, the state Education Department rated only 10 percent of more than 2,000 RCSD third graders proficient in English Language Arts. Eight percent of a similar number of fourth graders tested as proficient. Of 1,755 fifth graders tested, 6 percent scored high enough to be counted as proficient.
In each grade, well over half of tested students scored at 1, the lowest of the test’s four levels. The numbers continue in the single digits and occasionally in low double digits as the grades go up. Nearly half—46 percent—of the district’s 2,091 class of 2016 failed to graduate on time.
Rochester has the lowest graduation rate of any of the New York urban districts at 46 percent. (New York City outperformed Rochester by 13 percentage points.) Nine of Rochester’s 18 secondary schools are on the state Education Department’s “priority schools” list of struggling schools—the highest number outside of New York City.
The numbers were not good in the mid-1980s as well, but they weren’t as bad; two-thirds of RCSD students were graduating on time.
A firm grip
In 1986 Urbanski’s office was a cramped upper floor space at the end of a long dark corridor in the Medical Arts Building, an aging Art Deco structure on Alexander Street where Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer would have been at home.
During that interview Urbanski, whose family had fled the then Communist-run Poland to come to Rochester when Urbanski was a teenager, pointed with pride to a framed poster celebrating Solidarity, the Polish trade union whose leader, Lech Walesa, played a key role in overthrowing Poland’s Soviet-dominated Communist regime.
An internationally lionized leader of resistance, Walesa was elected president of a new, more democratic government in 1990. Urbanski, then a 39-year old, newly elected union leader, strongly identified with Walesa, who was like himself a Pole, a unionist and a reformer.
A few months ago, I interviewed Urbanski again. Now retired from teaching, he remains RTA president and the same Solidarity poster hangs on his office wall.
Urbanski has in some respects fared better than Walesa, who was ousted as president and now faces the opprobrium of a right-wing government that seeks to mend ties Walesa broke with Russia. Still, little of the praise heaped on Urbanski, when the Rochester school reform’s bloom was fresh, can be heard today.
Including McWalters’ predecessor, Laval Wilson, and several interim appointees who served terms ranging from four days to several months, 12 superintendents have come and gone over the course of Urbanski’s tenure. If Manuel Rivera, who served two non-consecutive terms as superintendent, is counted twice, the number of superintendents Urbanski has outlasted is more than a dozen. Barbara Deane-Williams announced her decision to retire as RCSD superintendent last month.
Against a shifting parade of superintendents, Urbanski, who joined RCSD in 1969, has maintained a firm grip on the RTA easily crushing several challengers in union elections. Some see Urbanski’s longevity as proof that he has been the real power in the district.
A recent 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in Janus v AFSCME has barred public sector unions from collecting so-called agency fees, a development many warn may seriously erode the clout of unions like the RTA. A sign of Urbanski’s continuing clout with his rank and file: In advance of the ruling, which court watchers predicted would fall as it did, Urbanski arranged a pre-ruling RTA vote in which 95 percent of members agreed to keep paying the fees regardless of how the ruling came down. He fully expected the vote total to approach 100 percent as yet uncounted ballots were tallied, Urbanski says.
Joseph Klein, a prominent local businessman who sees charter schools as the best and possibly only alternative for improving the city’s educational prospects, is one of Urbanski’s most persistent decriers. The RTA chief’s grip on the union is maintained “through fear and intimidation,” Klein insists.
Chairman of Klein Steel Service Inc., Klein traces his interest in education to experiences as a young man helping illiterate workers in his family’s scrap metal business learn to read.
As leader of the company, his concern deepened as it became harder to find workers sufficiently proficient in basic math and English to function in jobs that Klein says require at most eighth-grade skills. Determined to personally work to improve inner-city schools, Klein a few years ago went back to school, earning an M.S. in education from Harvard University in 2011, before offering his services.
Becoming disillusioned with what he saw as a feckless administration and a teaching cohort largely more interested in salary and benefits than in student achievement, Klein transferred his efforts in city public schools to charter schools, helping to establish E3 Rochester, a non-profit that runs two Rochester charter schools.
No longer part of E3’s management, Klein is still deeply concerned with the state of the city’s public education system. At the start of the third of three interviews I had with him, he handed me two thick folders containing news articles, studies and his own thoughts on RCSD problems.
The news articles detailed a history of poor test scores, financial ills and clashes between Urbanski and a series of superintendents. Klein is particularly incensed by a case in which an RCSD teacher was convicted and jailed for sexually abusing a student. He was defended by 22 teachers who wrote letters praising his record while no teacher spoke against him. The case is emblematic of what Klein calls “a culture of intimidation” in which the RTA under Urbanski silences internal union criticism.
Not so, Urbanski counters.
“People say: ‘Adam Urbanski is the real superintendent,’” he says. “If I had that clout, things would be a lot better.”
“The fact is we don’t control the curriculum,” he adds. “We get kids for 19 percent of the time. Fifty-one percent of what affects student learning is out of our control. (Teachers’) collective efforts are being outpaced by deterioration in children’s readiness for learning, but we are blamed because we are the ones making an effort.”