Once seen as a reformer in the vanguard of education reform, Rochester Teachers Association president Adam Urbanski has come to be viewed by some as an obstacle to Rochester’s troubled schools’ improvement. That transformation was nearly four decades in the making.
Urbanski was elected to the union’s presidency in 1981 at the age of 34.
A doctoral graduate of the University of Rochester’s American history program, he assumed the RTA position in the wake of a bruising 1980 teachers strike, ousting the union’s incumbent president in a five-way race.
With Urbanski’s installation as RTA chief, “the union leadership turned in a bold new direction,” wrote Gerald Grant in“Teaching in America: The Slow Revolution,” a 1999 book that in part exhaustively chronicles the early years of Rochester’s school reform.
In a series of op-eds published in the Rochester Gannett dailies, Urbanski laid out an ambitious goal: to completely restructure the city’s public school system, giving frontline teachers greater autonomy.
At the same time, he pushed for union changes, establishing a review system in which weaker teachers would be identified and mentored by colleagues and those who failed to improve moved out of the job.
Today Urbanski points to a system that still includes many of the elements agreed to in the 1987 teachers’ contract, saying the pact was designed to foster a cooperative effort between teachers and building administrators. It is a system in which the union plays “a lead role,” Urbanski says.
Push for reform
In the early 1980s, Urbanski’s push for districtwide reform gained traction.
“Within a few years, local newspaper paper editorial writers began to agree with him, increasing public support for teachers,” Grant wrote in his book.
In 1986, Urbanski found a willing partner in Peter McWalters, who had been named superintendent a year earlier. He replaced Laval Wilson, who had served as RCSD chief since 1980 and left in 1985 to take over as superintendent of Boston’s public school system.
Spurred as much by the extraordinary pay raise RTA teachers won in the pact they concluded as well as by the contract’s bold promise of reform, national media including the New York Times and Newsweek descended upon Rochester, eager to follow the RCSD’s progress.
The National Center for Education and the Economy, a prestigious education think tank, relocated to Rochester from Washington, D.C. The reason: Rochester was where the most exciting developments in education were happening, Marc Tucker, NCEE president and CEO told me in an interview at the time.
Read the first of two articles on Adam Urbanski: “Is he the real RCSD superintendent?”
In a reference to the RCSD’s recurring budget and control tussles with the city, which collects the taxes that largely fund the district, Tucker joked during that interview that from a window in his upper-floor State Street office he could draw a bead on then Rochester Mayor Tom Ryan Jr.’s office. As the reform lost steam, a few years later the think tank quietly packed up and left. Tucker, now back in Washington, still heads the NCEE.
The reform promised to play out messily, McWalters presciently warned in an interview at the time. Real and lasting change would not be accomplished incrementally, and moving to disrupt a whole system in one fell swoop could reasonably be expected to entail some chaos, he reasoned.
The prediction was accurate. After the three-year pact’s June 30, 1991, expiration date came and went with no new agreement reached, the New York Times published an article under an ominous headline: Rochester: An Uneasy Symbol of School Reform.
“Several schools have adopted innovative programs, executives on loan from Xerox and Eastman Kodak have helped revamp the district’s hiring, personnel and planning procedures, and the city has begun to attack once taboo issues like weeding out incompetent teachers,” the article stated.
But the piece also noted that some teachers were balking at taking part in the new programs and that parents were complaining that the dramatic improvements McWalters and Urbanski had promised were largely failing to materialize. The state meanwhile was in a fiscal crunch and seemed likely to enact severe budget cuts that would threaten to endanger the positive steps the restructuring effort had achieved.
“The public is disgusted. So is the business leadership. Everyone out there is angry. They feel left out, alienated and unconnected. They don’t know whether I’m succeeding or failing,” McWalters told the Times.
Call to action
In the mid-1980s before he served as Rochester mayor, William Johnson Jr., who was then the Rochester Urban League’s president, organized a communitywide effort aimed at improving the city’s schools.
“A lot of people advised me to not send my own daughter to city schools,” Johnson says. “That bothered me.”
Known as a Call to Action and featuring a report outlining the schools’ ills under that title, the effort involved an area-wide task force made up of community residents, business leaders and school officials. In a series of open-ended mass meetings for community members to air virtually any complaint, the push also sought wide input from all corners.
The school reform that kicked off with the 1987 teachers’ pact in a sense co-opted the reform he hoped would come out of the Call to Action, Johnson says. Instead of the communitywide buy-in to a reform push that he had envisioned, the contract set the district on a course devised solely by teachers and administrators.
As to the reform’s specifics, “I’m not a particular fan of school-based planning,” Johnson says.
Not long after the Times article’s publication, McWalters resigned, moving up to a job as Rhode Island’s commissioner of education. He stayed there for 17 years before retiring to work with several national education think tanks.
Asked recently to comment on the Rochester Schools’ current ills and to what extent he sees Urbanski as a cause of its downturn, McWalters had no unkind words for the RTA chief or the reform effort.
“Not staying to finish the reform with Adam is one of my great regrets. He is still a partner for me,” he says.
Asked why he thought Rochester’s public schools had declined since his departure, McWalters cites factors such as an increasing over-reliance on standardized testing as a measure of student progress and teacher effectiveness and a slide into ever deeper poverty by many of the city’s residents.
Testing distorts curricula, leaving teachers with too little time to teach much beyond test preparation, while poverty means too many students enter school unprepared to learn, McWalters maintains.
In 1991, the Times article’s prediction proved accurate. The RCSD was left with a $10 million problem that fell in the lap of McWalters’ successor, Manuel Rivera.
A string of superintendents
An assistant superintendent under Wilson, Rivera had carried over into the McWalters administration. Confronted with the budget shortfall as superintendent, he asked the administrators union and RTA teachers to take a 1 percent pay cut. The RTA responded with a full-page newspaper advertisement, listing administrators’ salaries that urge the district to “chop from the top.” Urbanski said he would agree to a 1 percent cut for his members only if the district would agree to trim 40 percent off of its administrative budget. The union’s demand was not met.
Over the next 23 years, eight superintendents came and went. They served for varying terms. Each had a plan for school improvement. Budget woes continued to plague the RCSD. Tensions between the city administration and the school at times escalated, putting strains on the district.
In 2002, the school board voted out Superintendent Clifford Janey who, after a one-year term served by interim Superintendent Loretta Johnson, had succeeded Rivera. In ousting Janey after seven years, the board cited a toxic environment that had developed between the city’s mayor, Johnson, who was then in his third mayoral term, and Janey.
Despite the board’s vote to sever ties with Janey, Urbanski along with Bolgen Vargas, then a school board member and later RCSD superintendent, voiced support for Janey.
“Ironically, for all of the blame that is being fixed on Clifford Janey, he managed to avoid gutting the system,” Urbanski told Education Week at the time.
Vargas was on the same page. In a letter of reference backed by the entire board, he credited Janey with improving student test scores, decreasing dropout rates, and consistently presenting balanced budgets to the board.
Meanwhile Johnson, along with four city residents, filed a petition with the state’s commissioner of education seeking to have Janey’s roughly $260,000 severance package clawed back. A refund was called for because the district suffered a hidden $45 million mid-year budget deficit, the mayor claimed in court papers.
The petition did not succeed.
In a January 2003 decision, Commissioner Richard Mills said the group lacked standing to ask for the clawback and that the school board was within its rights to make the severance payment.
Seven superintendents followed Janey over the next 16 years. Among them: Rivera, who returned to run the district for a second five-year term. There were also several interim appointments for periods ranging from a few days to a few months while the board searched for more permanent replacements for departed leaders. Permanent appointees averaged 4.75 years in the job.
The changing parade of superintendents and the too frequent realignment of educational initiatives it brought was a far greater contributor to the RCSD’s declining results than either Urbanski or the RTA, a retired long-serving RCSD elementary school principal maintains. Citing fears that a relative currently working in the city school district could face retaliation, the retiree spoke with me on the condition of anonymity.
An RCSD veteran who spent more than a decade leading an inner-city elementary school, the principal describes the school as serving a population plagued by extreme poverty and a student body in which many suffered from a form of post-traumatic stress brought on by poverty-induced strains.
Despite such challenges, the school had achieved better than average results, winning plaudits from RCSD and state officials, the ex-principal says. A variety of strategies helped win those plaudits, chief among them: carefully nurtured collegial relations with the building’s teachers, a willingness to ignore central office policies and curriculum dictates that did not make instructional sense, and services to help unprepared children and their families.
During the No Child Left Behind era, textbook publishers sold the RCSD on scripted reading programs. Publishers provided instructional materials that included scripts teachers were supposed to follow more or less verbatim, a strategy the ex-principal saw as futile and expensive.
“It cost the district $300,000 a school. I refused to use them. Central office saw what I was doing was getting results, so they left us alone,” the retired principal says. However, few other schools escaped unscathed.
A review of available state records for much of the retiree’s tenure as principal show few students in the school scored highly on state tests, with the greatest number testing at a level of 2 or 3 on a four-point scale. However, the school’s aggregate scores often outpaced results at schools the state rated as demographically similar. Most of the school’s teachers were rated as highly qualified.
In efforts to stem the district’s decline, each new administration brought in other new ideas, adopting programs that had turned the tide in other districts, the former principal recalls. Often, however, the Rochester district would put its own spin on programs, blunting or negating their effectiveness.
“The district did not recognize best practices. The problem with central office is its culture. It’s not rooted in reality,” the ex-principal complains.
Johnson does not disagree.
“How many superintendents have we had?” he says. “Each one comes in and changes everything. Each time there’s millions of dollars spent.”
“We exonerate families from the major role they should play. There are too many children who are not ready to receive the educational experience,” Johnson adds, echoing a complaint familiar to Urbanski.
While central office chased a changing stream of ideas, the strategies that worked to yield good results at the former principal’s inner-city school involved building trust between the building’s teachers and administrators while making sure that teachers stayed on track, the retiree says.
“I have no problem with Adam Urbanski or the RTA,” the ex-principal says, when asked about the RTA chief’s contribution to the district’s ills.
As an example of how weak teachers should be nurtured, the former principal spoke of an initially overwhelmed, new teacher who ultimately became “one of my best teachers.”
A 30-year old who had left a successful career in private industry after “hearing a call to teach,” the woman was in tears and ready to quit after a day on the job in which she had proved not up to the task of managing a roomful of difficult and often disruptive students.
“I got a sub for my best teacher, who taught the fifth grade, and put her in the room with the new teacher for the rest of the year,” the principal says. “It cost a fortune to pay a sub for a year but it was worth it.”
On the flip side of that coin, the retiree describes gently nudging more than 35 poorly performing teachers out of the profession after mentoring and coaching failed to achieve results. Other features the retiree cites as elements of the school’s relative success included an open-door policy that invited any parent to drop in to speak to the principal, appointment or not.
“I once got up from a meeting with (former RCSD superintendent) Clifford Janey to meet with a parent who had just walked in. I think his jaw dropped to the floor,” the former principal recalls. “Most of our parents fell through the cracks. You need to always see parents right away. There’s no sense making them go through an assistant principal because I’d be making the final decision.”
The final element in the school’s above-average results was that it was one of several in high-poverty areas in which the district arranged to make medical, dental and social work services available.
Such services are vital because “you can be the best teacher in the world but you can’t teach a traumatized student,” the retiree observes. “What’s needed is to flatten central office,” to put less distance between the administration and the schools, the retiree recommends.
Effort to change
At the start of his term, Jean Claude Brizard vowed to “put children first.” Brizard served as superintendent for more than three years, beginning in January 2008. Having run the 100,000-student Region Six New York City school district, Brizard came highly recommended.
Brizard pledged to work closely with parents and community leaders. Rochester Mayor Thomas Richards praised Brizard as someone his administration could work with.
Even then, Brizard bowed out early, departing to take a job as Chicago’s school superintendent. The object of an RTA no-confidence vote, he and Urbanski locked horns.
Today Brizard is a deputy director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, leading educational initiatives spearheaded by the billionaire philanthropists’ foundation. Brizard says he finds the Rochester public school system’s current state “really disheartening in a number of ways.”
The root of the RCSD’s malaise is essentially “a culture issue. A critical mass refuses to accept improvement,” he maintains. Rochester is one of many poverty plagued U.S. cities, he says, and other school districts have not fared as poorly. Its near neighbor Buffalo, for example, is seeing better results, as is Chicago.
During Brizard’s term the district’s graduation rate improved, from the low 30-percent range to 50 percent. Improvement efforts under Brizard included substantial cuts in central office staff and increased focus on middle school improvement. He decided to quit Rochester because he believed a school board vote to oust him was imminent. A number of offers came his way, including the Chicago job. He took it.
“I will vote for no confidence. I would vote for impeachment if I could,” stated RTA member Larry Neal in an op-ed published prior to the union vote in 2011. Neal said deal breakers for union members were Brizard’s openness to charter school expansion and the superintendent’s plan to add more days to the school year beyond the 185 in the RTA contract.
Brizard’s program included “dismantling of the public educational system in favor of a business- modeled system of charter schools. The teachers and the community want to fix the existing system,” Neal wrote, explaining his intention to vote against Brizard in the union’s then upcoming no-confidence vote.
Urbanski himself at the time called Brizard delusional, telling a reporter that the district faced a stark binary choice: Either he or Brizard would have to leave. Both could not stay.
There was then little daylight between his own and Urbanski’s educational goals and philosophies, and there still is not, Brizard says. The two “weren’t actually that far apart. Our differences were more personal. Adam wanted to be a co-superintendent and I would not allow that,” he asserts.
The school board in fact considered Brizard for the job on Urbanski’s recommendation, says Van White, a board member at the time.
In the end, Brizard believes, Urbanski won the standoff largely because of his public relations skills.
“He does really well at representing teachers but not as well at representing kids,” Brizard says. “What he’s good at is messaging. His talking points resonate.”
Brizard’s successor was Vargas, who took over as an interim appointee in 2011 and signed a contract in 2012. He resigned in 2015 in a fight with a school board headed by White. Citing a state statute that he believes gives school boards the authority to nix superintendents’ hiring decisions, White maintained that the board, not the superintendent, has final say over central office hires.
A showdown came after the board moved unilaterally to fire some administration officials. Vargas fought the board in court and the board said it would not renew his contract. With six months left to go on his existing pact, Vargas said he would bow out early. Urbanski and Vargas had failed to come to terms over an upcoming RTA contract mostly because it was unclear whether the board could upend any agreement they reached. Urbanski called for Vargas to leave early rather than stay on as a consultant until his contract’s June 30, 2016, expiration date.
Vargas—currently superintendent of the Manchester School District in Manchester, N.H.—says that he then saw and still sees Urbanski as one of a few bright spots in an often otherwise dysfunctional district. When Vargas wanted to close schools, for example, Urbanski backed the move.
“It is very unusual for a teachers’ union not to oppose school closings,” Vargas says. “I closed five schools. The demographics of the district had changed and we had surplus space. We were able to lease a building bringing in half-a-million dollars and guess who we rented it to, a charter school. Adam didn’t object.”
Vargas recalls another instance when he wanted to redistribute $20 million in federal Title I money that the district had previously earmarked to be parceled out to various non-profits. Vargas’s idea was to use the money to bolster underfunded district programs and services. Of the several non-profits that he asked to let loose of the money, says Vargas, an RTA affiliate was the only one to agree.
Two interim superintendents followed Vargas. Syracuse educator Daniel Lowengard’s tenure was cut short when he suffered a stroke four days into the job. Linda Cimusz, an educator who had held administrative posts in Syracuse, Erie County and Texas, held the interim job until August 2016, when the board named Barbara Deane-Williams as RCSD superintendent. Deane-Williams in October announced her decision to retire after two years with the district. A former Greece school superintendent who was as a deputy superintendent in the Boston school system, she returned to Upstate New York to take the Rochester job. As this article was being written, Deane-Williams was out of the country and unavailable for comment.
The path forward
Whatever direction the RCSD’s ship of state moves in going forward, it would appear that a triumvirate—White, Deane-Williams (or her successor in 2019) and Urbanski—will be at the helm, at least for the time being.
Before Deane-Williams was hired, White noted that any new superintendent would follow a path different from the district’s previous top executives. Typically, school boards follow superintendents’ leads, but that would no longer be the case in Rochester, White told a reporter at the time.
“We have generally let our superintendents dictate how we get to the finish line, but now we are looking for someone who will be a member of a team,” he said. “This is not going to be a superhero coming in wearing a cape that will fix everything themselves.”
At the start of her second year as superintendent, Deane-Williams laid out a program called the Path Forward meant to boost city schools’ lagging performance. Elements include:
- Rearranging existing programs and services to spread them more equitably among the district’s schools;
- Investigating the district’s four better performing schools—the School of the Arts, School Without Walls, World of Inquiry and the Children’s School—to see if their methods can applied to other schools; and
- Looking into adding new schools—for example, the district’s six-year P-TECH school, whose students graduate with a two-year Monroe Community College degree—that would attract suburban students to the city’s public schools. The Rochester P-TECH school is part of a wider state program that centers on partnerships with business.
Despite all the changes in RCSD leadership, Urbanski has managed to hold on to his job as union leader. White admits he and Urbanski have disagreed in the past; White did not support Urbanski’s anti-Brizard campaign. But today they are largely on the same page, White says.
“The new superintendent, Barbara Deane-Williams, is the best of all the superintendents I’ve worked with,” Urbanski says.
White points to an uptick in graduation rates under Deane-Williams—up to 51.7 percent as of June 2017 and to 57 percent after the 2017 summer school term ended—as a positive development that augers better days ahead.
Some remain unimpressed. New board member Beatriz LeBron is one.
Appointed to the board last year to serve the balance of departing member Malik Evans’ term, LeBron is a single parent of three children; one attends a city elementary school and two are in college.
A community health worker withRochester Regional Health, LeBron moved to Rochester from the Bronx, where she grew up. She relocated at the urging of sister, who was then attending SUNY Brockport as a scholarship student.
The Path Forward notwithstanding, LeBron sees many problems with the schools and the district’s management and believes too little is being done to address them. She is impatient.
LeBron echoes Urbanski’s critics in calling for the union chief to step down, but she doesn’t see him or the RTA as the main cause of the district’s woes. Others also have been too long on the job, she points out.
“The entire district is in crisis,” LeBron says. “It’s been going on for so long that people are used to it. There’s no sense of urgency. It drives me crazy.”
In her brief time on the board, LeBron has been something of a gadfly. Citing concerns that the RCSD is flirting with bankruptcy by habitually dipping too deeply into its fund balance, she voted against the district’s nearly $1 billion budget last June.
“We’ve run a structural deficit for over a decade,” LeBron says. “We need to do something, but I want to cut central office before educational programs.”
The spending plan passed despite LeBron’s undisputed complaint that the fund balance would soon be depleted and a warning she passed to the Rochester City Council. City officials did note LeBron’s concerns and vowed to keep closer tabs on the district’s spending.
The district’s financial shakiness is not LeBron’s sole concern. School staffing levels are uneven with some schools overstaffed and others short of teachers. A staffing analysis the district ordered points to the problem but “we will never get to hear about it,” she claims.
Her own children succeeded in city public schools despite the fact that she worked two and sometimes three jobs while putting herself through college partly because of additional support from after-school programs mounted by outside non-profits, LeBron says. Districtwide, such support is thinly spread and often a beat away from losing funding.
Vargas cites similar inefficiencies as a main cause, if not the main cause of what he saw as the district’s ills in his time as RCSD’s chief executive.
In one such instance, Vargas described discovering that the district had been continuing to pay health benefits to some 400 individuals who were no longer eligible. Those payouts had in some cases been made for years, Vargas says. By the time he discovered the boondoggle, the ex-superintendent says, 12 individuals whose premiums the district was wrongly paying for had died. He has not followed RCSD affairs closely since he left and was not aware of LeBron’s complaints, Vargas says.
In LeBron’s view, the district’s ills are due in no small part to a sort of ossification. Not only Urbanski, but some of her fellow board members such as White, a 12-veteran of the board, and Vice President Willa Powell, who has served 21 years, have stayed too long at the fair, LeBron claims.
“I love my fellow board members,” she says. “They’re my friends, but they’ve been around too long.”
Whether LeBron or White and Powell will last longer on the board is not immediately clear. White’s term runs through 2021: Powell’s term ends in December 2019. LeBron’s term expires in December. Voters will decide whether she will begin a new, four-year term in January.
White recently mounted a failed run for Congress. He shows no sign of vacating his school board seat or any inclination to seek Urbanski’s exit as RTA chief.
“It’s not fair to pick on Adam,” White says. “No one person has the power to single-handedly effect change. Adam has more than 30 years of experience. The RTA keeps re-electing him. They must see something there.”
Johnson likewise does not see Urbanski as the sole source of the district’s woes.
“I took exception to a lot of Adam’s strategies, but I never questioned his integrity,” he says. “At the end of the day he did what his job called for. You could put someone else in charge of the RTA and have the same result. If he can be faulted for anything, it’s his longevity. Maybe he should retire.”
As to what might move the city schools forward, the ex-mayor and convener of a Call to Action offers no magic bullet but instead laments: “We still haven’t found a way to bring the community together.”