Rochester City School Board president Van White sees the glass as half full. Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino says: Get a new glass. The old one is cracked.
Where an apparent impasse between the RCSD and the state Department of Education—determined to set the long-troubled district on a different course—will come out is far from clear.
Under the gun from state education officials long dissatisfied with the city schools’ performance, the school board has less than two months to formally respond to Aquino’s detailed and wide-ranging blueprint for change. If there is no meeting of the minds between the state-appointed consultant and the fractious board, the RCSD could face a state takeover or be forced to cede control to Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren.
In mid-November, Aquino issued a review of the city schools that many read as a scathing indictment. The report calls for a relatively specific set of actions that some board members, most notably White, do not agree with entirely. The state has given the district a mid-February deadline to formally respond to the report. That response will based, in part, on a plan being worked on by RCSD administration officials under the supervision of Superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams, who by February will have left her job.
The 60-page reportcomes under a 2007 law authorizing the Board of Regents to name distinguished educators “to assist low-performing districts in improving their academic performance.”
The Education Department codified regulations for selecting and deploying distinguished educators in 2011, making such interventions a relatively recent and, so far, only rarely used nostrum. To qualify for distinguished educator assistance, districts must have missed Education Department improvement targets for four years.
Areas for remediation
Broad areas the report lists as needing remediation are:
- the board’s lack of understanding of its role as a governing body;
- the community’s low expectations for students fed by a deep history of institutional racism;
- too little attention to teaching and learning;
- a culture of fear and intimidation;
- lack of a system of accountability; and
- a serious structural budget deficit.
Aquino proposes working with the board and the RCSD administration on an ongoing basis to rectify those deficits. A schedule laying out a specific order in which each problem area is to be dealt with follows the body of the report in an appendix. The schedule projects a timeline beginning this month and stretching to May 2020. Notably, its first six items deal with schooling the board on its proper role as a governing body and on how to more efficiently carry out its duties.
At a hastily called press conference, four of the board’s seven members spoke a day after the report’s Nov. 14 release. The reactions of members were varied.
Board member Beatriz LeBron pronounced herself mostly in line with Aquino. White, Willa Powell and Natalie Sheppard agreed in part but also pushed back. The question of where the board draws a line between oversight and management promises to be tough to hash out.
White and Sheppard met Aquino’s call for the board to step back from a frenetic thrice-weekly pace of meetings with less than open arms. Aquino noted the pace “keeps the superintendent and her cabinet from focusing on improving student achievement, leads to stretched staff, and demonstrates micromanagement.”
The report also suggests the board “must ask itself why it cannot retain its superintendents,” citing the RCSD’s record of having gone through five superintendents over the last decade. The distinguished educator’s concern on that score was unexpectedly highlighted by Deane-Williams, whose recent decision to depart at the end of this month after some two years on the job seemed to come as a surprise to Aquino.
“We’re supposed to be a team and in state law we are a team,” Sheppard says. “Unfortunately, we do get superintendents who feel that the board is micromanaging. But when we have so many things that are going awry in our district, for me as an individual board member, I’m not going to have hands off. My role is to be hands on until I can be hands off.”
Concurs White: “I don’t agree with the governance model that says board members have to sit on their hands and wait for direction.”
His own view—that New York school boards are not just entitled but are required by state law to be active managers—is in the minority and 180 degrees away from Aquino’s, White concedes. Citing Brookings Institution data that tabulates the average tenure of U.S. school superintendents at some three years, White maintains that once the relatively brief terms of RCSD interims are factored out, the Rochester district actually exceeds the national average.
As to Deane-Williams’ “slightly early” departure, White says: “It’s got to work for the board; it’s got to work for the superintendent; and it’s got to work or the community. I’m going to say something that’s probably going to shock you all. It wasn’t working. Let’s just be honest. It wasn’t working. I hope you find that refreshing.”
An unidentified party among the 180 district teachers, administrators, parents, community members and school board members the distinguished educator interviewed in researching the report describes the dynamic between the board and superintendents thusly: “The way the board functions will ensure that any superintendent fails.”
White questions Aquino’s conclusion that the district is centered on adults and not on children, objecting that the distinguished educator had spoken only to adults. White’s point was not that Aquino should have quizzed students. To get a true picture of the district’s child-centeredness, Aquino should have relied more on data, White maintains, statistics like a graduation rate that has improved from 39 percent to 59 percent during his own 10-year tenure on the board, for example.
But 300 data-rich pages supporting Aquino’s conclusions that are not included in the publicly released report are part of a fuller version that went to the state education commissioner, LeBron objects.
“My reaction to the characterization that (the district is) addressing adult concerns and adult issues (is that it) misses the mark,” Powell says. “While I don’t agree with every decision everyone in this institution has made, I start with the assumption that behind their action, behind their decision is a concern for a child or a group of children.
“And so, although the actions might appear to be adult-centric, we don’t know that and we cannot know that because we do not know what is in the hearts and minds of every individual involved.”
White pronounces himself comfortable with Aquino personally and willing to work with the distinguished educator, but he had an important caveat.
“I think (Aquino) has been very transparent. I enjoyed working with him; I’m going to continue to enjoy working with him,” he says. “But again, if he’s going be willing to have us accept his honest assessment, (and) I believe it was genuine based on his experience, he and the commissioner must be equally willing to listen to our concerns and observations.”
Whether the give-and-take between the distinguished educator and the board will come as easily as White imagines remains to be seen.
A district in disarray
Aquino’s report paints a picture of a district in disarray and lays much of the blame for its disorder and lack of progress at the school board’s feet. To be sure, Aquino describes significant dysfunction in RCSD’s central office, pointing to an alleged lack of transparency, inconsistency and poor follow-through in administrative decision making and planning. But some of the blame for the district’s dysfunction—and perhaps a meaningful slice of it, in Aquino’s telling—traces to the board’s repeated failure to establish a proper relationship with its superintendents.
Read this post on schools in receivership: “Steps forward by schools in receivership.”
“Many stakeholders interviewed noted that board commissioners could not clearly define their roles and responsibilities, which interfered with the superintendent’s ability to lead effectively. Observers noted that, in some instances, board commissioners act as if they were the superintendent trying to manage the day-to-day operations of the district. Many in the community would like to see the board president exercise greater leadership to make the board’s governance more effective,” Aquino’s report states.
According to the distinguished educator, such difficulties are exacerbated by a board that habitually sends mixed messages to the administration.
“Superintendents have had to manage seven individual board commissioners, rather than work with a unified board to support student achievement. This has often led superintendents to concentrate on satisfying separate requests from individual Board Commissioners at the expense of the important work of the District,” the report states.
Disarray at the top filters down, the document adds, creating what interviewees described as “a culture of fear.”
Aquino’s report states that in a September 2018 presentation to a school board committee, the district’s auditor general agreed with that assessment, stating that the alleged culture of fear “starts at the top with the board and superintendent, and spreads down through executive cabinet, directors, and managers.
“This culture infects decision-making, spending, everyday actions, and communications, distracting educators from their real job of putting the students’ needs first. This culture lowers staff morale, inhibits innovation, delays projects, and saps energy. Ultimately, it increases apathy from top to bottom.”
Several board members report that state officials had warned them of consequences—placing the entire school district in receivership, forcibly removing board members or turning control of the district over to the mayor—that could ensue should the district fail to meet the state’s expectations.
Calling the distinguished educator’s report “a sobering assessment of our city schools,” Warren has so far responded to the report only with a prepared statement in which she carefully avoided any signal as to whether she would welcome or seek to avoid a takeover.
“As a community we all need to take some time to read it and fully digest its contents, recommendations and conclusions,” the mayor’s statement reads. “I believe this document needs to be the basis of important community conversations on the state of our school district today, but even more importantly on where the district needs to go tomorrow and beyond. At this critical time of flux, with the superintendent’s departure, we need to seize on this moment to ensure our children are not left behind. We only get one chance to educate a child and we cannot afford to lose this opportunity to put our schools on a sustainable path of success.”
The four board members who have responded to the report publicly each said that they found much to agree with in the document’s depiction of the RCSD’s dire straits. How far the board as a whole might go to meet the state’s demands is unclear.
LeBron is ready to accept most if not all of Aquino’s assessments and to work with the distinguished educator going forward. The report confirms many of her own impressions of the RCSD’s woes, she says, comparing the district to a burning building whose occupants are blithely going about their business, coming and going while ignoring the conflagration,
Yet in White’s view, “I don’t think there’s anything that compels us to do anything.”
One chance to get it right
Jane Conrad, a former section chief in the state attorney general’s office in charge of education-related litigation, believes White could be mistaken. Conrad retired before the 2007 distinguished educator law was passed and declines to comment on the statute specifically. Still, she notes that unlike the U.S. Constitution, New York’s foundational document requires the state to provide public education for its citizens. That feature bestows broad powers on the education commissioner as the executor of the constitutional mandate, powers that would include the ability to enforce the Education Department’s dictates on local school districts, Conrad says.
The department currently does not have a set of clear standards for assessing school boards’ effectiveness and did not adopt such a set proposed by New York State School Boards Association, Powell notes.
“SED rejected that document,” Powell complains. “I think they need to reconsider it before there is any conversation about changing governance structure. Show boards of education precisely where they’re failing according to metrics, in the same way as they use metrics to assess the classroom and the teacher, the principal, all the way up through the education process. To even consider receivership for the district, or to consider replacing board members or switching governance to mayoral control or some other measure without an explicit metric is irresponsible.”
As of this article’s publication, a department spokesman was still working on my week-old request for a statement outlining the scope of the commissioner’s powers under the distinguished educator statute.
In closing remarks at the Nov. 15 event, a visibly offended White pushed back against Aquino’s characterization of the report in private meetings with himself and other board members as an indictment of the district.
“Words matter … words like indictment,” said an increasingly agitated White. “Do we have to use a word like indictment? I’m familiar with that term. I’m an attorney. My God, that refers to a criminal process.
“Why would we use such a phrase, even as abysmal as some of the data is? That is not a responsible word to use. It takes people’s focus away from the job at hand. I realize it may create some sense of urgency. Is there a person who’s sitting up here who doesn’t understand that this is an urgent situation? Do you have use a word like indictment when we’re sitting across from (the Monroe County jail, which) actually has people in there, some of them without cause? Do we have to use such word when it incites rather than informs?”
Still, White added, “my disagreement with (Aquino) on some things doesn’t mean that I can’t look at that document … because I’m charged with along with my colleagues with helping children and families. … I can’t get tied up with my two or three disagreements with Dr. Aquino. There’s not a member of the board who, I think, would do that.”
Says Sheppard: “This is it. We have one chance to get this right and then it’s over. We have until February. That’s right around the corner and it’s right as our budget season starts, so we really have to get on the ball.”
The corner draws ever closer.