Solving the RCSD puzzle

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In the mid-1980s, I sat in on an interview of Rochester Mayor Thomas Ryan Jr. with Mary Anna Towler, the editor of City Newspaper, where I was then a reporter. She asked: What was Ryan’s vision for the city?

In response, the taciturn Ryan at first looked pained and then growled words to the effect that the key to the city’s future lay with keeping and attracting young families. And the key to keeping and attracting young families lay with the health and quality of the public schools. End of story.

In the intervening decades, Ryan’s prescription has proved to be if not prescient, certainly accurate. The city’s and its school system’s fortunes have arguably declined in tandem. Whether they are now on the mend, or continuing to slide, is not easily discernable. But there may be grounds for hope.     

Concerned by low test scores and poor graduation rates, state Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia last year appointed Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino to conduct a review of the Rochester City School District. The district recently responded to that report.

Still, a final question hangs over the Aquino report and the district’s response: However well- intentioned and on point the distinguished educator’s critique and RCSD response might be, will there be sufficient continuity to carry through?­­­­ 

A grim assessment

The naming of distinguished educators as guides to troubled school districts is an innovation put in place by New York’s Department of Education in 2011. Authorized by a 2007 law, the program was created “to assist low-performing districts and schools within such districts that failed to make adequate yearly progress for four or more years.” 

Aquino’s 60-page report was issued in November. It details an extensive list of shortfalls and shortcomings, identifying 88 separate areas in which the Rochester district needs to improve.

Jaime Aquino

According to board members, Elia and Aquino have warned that the district’s failure to adequately address the issues that the report centers on could result in a state takeover of the city’s public schools or control of the district being handed to Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren.

Warren has expressed concern over the city schools’ ills. She spoke at an event this month in support of a letter penned by ROC the Future executive director Jackie Campbell and ROC the Future chair Ajamu Kitwana to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. ROC the Future outlined a petition campaign—”Our Children. Our Future.” —to transform and improve Rochester’s schools.

Read more on ROC the Future’s call for reform: “ROC the Future to push for RCSD overhaul”

Apparently chastened, the school board has diligently labored to answer Aquino, producing a highly detailed, point-by-point response to each of his criticisms.

I attended a board session at which members hammered out their response. It was one of many the board had held over a two-month span. It was plain that despite some members’ initial skepticism, they were taking the report seriously as they minutely honed each section’s wording. 

RCSD board president Van White said the board intends to continue cooperating with Aquino, who is supposed to issue quarterly reports detailing the district’s progress over the coming months. Aquino projects working with the RCSD board at least through May 2020.

Elia has final say as to how well the district does in meeting the distinguished educator’s goals. She has yet to respond to the more than 100-page district response. If she asks for modifications or amendments, “we’ll cooperate,” White promised.  

Still, two board members voted to not authorize the response. 

New member Judith Davis cited concerns that the response is not backed by an executable strategy. 

“The document is based on things that aren’t usable,” Davis said. “I said no to the document because it doesn’t contain changes needed. The response needs to be based on empirical experience.”

Natalie Sheppard cited the document’s failure to grapple with what she sees as a main priority: seeking changes in state law that would rein in teachers unions.

“I voted no because Commissioner Elia has said no to the opportunity to change state law,” Sheppard said. She and other like-minded activists are continuing to lobby state lawmakers to seek such changes, she adds. 

Board member Elizabeth Hallmark voted to endorse the response.

“I think it’s a good start, a much-needed blueprint, very detailed,” she said.

Still, added Hallmark, who has announced her intention not to seek a further term when her current one expires in December, “I’m not very optimistic about the board.”

Differing opinions

Arguably lying at the root of many of the ills he cites is what Aquino sees as a school board that he criticizes for misunderstanding its role as a governing body by taking too direct of a role in district management, getting bogged down in endless meetings and too often failing to act as a unified body.

On the micromanagement score, at least two school commissioners’ responses to the Aquino review—White’s and Sheppard’s—did not initially seem promising. Both, for slightly different reasons, said they saw plenty of reason to take a direct role. 

“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,” Sheppard declared at a December press conference called by White to respond to the Aquino report.

“Micromanagement is not an issue for me,” she confirmed, speaking at a community event a few weeks ago, explaining that “as superintendents change out, the board provides continuity.” 

An attorney and a 10-year board veteran, White has over the course of his tenure cited state statutes that he interprets as not merely allowing but requiring school boards to manage particulars of the systems they oversee.

Hallmark, who chairs the governance committee, disagrees. 

“Our job is to set goals and policy,” she says.   

Hallmark says she has long made her differences with White on this point clear to the board president, adding that neither’s position has changed.

Davis makes clear that her vote against the response was not related to the governance question.

“The board’s role is to set policy and oversee. Our role is not day-to-day management,” she says.

White does not see such differences as fatal. Of the six members who voted on the response, four agreed to back it. 

“That’s a majority,” White says, objecting to a newspaper headline that characterized the vote split as a move by “a divided board.” 

A seventh member, Beatriz LeBron, was not present for the vote. She has not said publicly how she might have voted and did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article. 

Dealing with challenges

In search of greater unity, the board has made a promise to hold restorative circles, professional development sessions and retreats as part of the official response—measures White sees as likely to bring the body into greater harmony.

The distinguished educator’s work with the district begins as the district finds itself at the front end of a search for a superintendent to replace Barbara Deane-Williams, who left the post at the end of 2018. 

Deane-Williams’ resignation ended a foreshortened two-year tenure that White summed up by publicly declaring that “it just wasn’t working.” 

Hired in 2016, Deane-Williams replaced former Superintendent Bolgen Vargas, a onetime RCSD board president who quit as superintendent over clashes with the board over hiring. Deane-Williams’ tenure came at time of substantial turnover on the board.  

In a search to replace Deane-Williams, the board has retained a search firm, which has lined up “15 good candidates,” White says. A new superintendent will be on board by July, when the district begins a new fiscal year, he predicts. 

In the meantime, the district is dealing with several immediate challenges:  

  • It must put a 2019-20 budget in place as it faces perilously depleted reserves after years of dipping into its reserve funds to close a chronic structural deficit;
  • It must negotiate a new contract with the Rochester Teachers Association, whose current pact expires with the end of the district’s current fiscal year June 30; and 
  • It is dealing with a report by the commission it formed last year that found serious deficiencies with the district’s special education programs. Aquino’s review also highlighted longstanding special education deficiencies as an area where the district is falling short.

Until the board hires a new superintendent, Daniel Lowengard, a former Syracuse schools chief who the board also tapped as a fill-in when Vargas quit, is serving as the Rochester district’s chief executive. Upon him will fall the task of finalizing a budget and striking a deal with the teachers union. 

In 2016, health problems forced Lowengard out after a few days on the job. His interim deputy, Linda Cimusz, took over and served until Deane-Williams came on board. Cimusz, a former Buffalo school official, is currently serving as Lowengard’s second in command. 

New union deal

If negotiations between the RTA and Lowengard turn out as union president Adam Urbanski hopes, a deal with the RTA could provide the district with some budget relief. The deal involves a plan Urbanski says he presented to Lowengard several weeks ago in which the RTA would offer a new retirement incentive to its membership. 

Adam Urbanski

Urbanski declined to share specifics of the proposal but says he believes the offer would tip as many as 150 of the district’s highest-paid teachers toward early retirement. When the cost of the incentive payouts nets out against the reduction in salary and benefit expenses as the district hires lower-paid replacements, the district’s bottom-line result would be a savings of as much as $5 million a year for the life of the early retirement offer, he says.

Urbanski says the retirement incentive plan could also help the RCSD address a persistent criticism: that minorities are sorely underrepresented on its teaching staff. Not only would the plan help clear away older, higher-salary teachers; it would clear the way for younger teachers of color, he maintains.  

Urbanski says that within the past week, Lowengard, who by law is the party authorized to strike a deal with the union, said he would run the union’s numbers himself and present the offer to the board. As of this article’s publication, Urbanski was still waiting for an answer.  

During a nearly two-hour interview last week, White told me that Lowengard had shared a proposal with the board that White believes would substantially alleviate the district’s reserve-fund crunch. White declined to share details.

Special education concerns

While such a deal might take some of the immediate budgetary heat off of the RCSD, other problems await longer-term solutions. Special education has been one of the district’s more stubborn bugaboos. 

“Special education has been a long-term concern,” Aquino wrote in his November review. “The district has commissioned many reports aimed at improvement but has failed to translate their findings into real progress. Special education students represent 20 percent of the district’s student population, making it essential for the District to improve delivery of education services to these learners.”

At a meeting I attended last month, board members—including White, Davis, Hallmark and Sheppard—and Lowengard answered questions posed by an audience large made up of parents of children attending RCSD schools. Many of the questions centered on the district’s special education programs. The group peppered the officials with complaints, many of them bitterly posed.  

A recurring theme was the assertion that black males have been and are continuing to be wrongly shunted into special education programs for reasons that have more to do with racial bias than with actual needs.

“You are not wrong, but you need to be specific,” Lowengard advised the angry parents. 

Concerns aired in that meeting are not out of line with the conclusions reached by the board-appointed special commission. 

“There are widespread and very serious problems in virtually every aspect of the district’s special education programs and services. These problems both lead to non-compliance with the district’s legal obligations and perhaps, more importantly, to the predictable failure of students with disabilities to succeed to the extent to which they are capable,” the commission wrote in its April 2018 report.

The report has teeth. The commission, whose members included Melanie Funchess, a parent of RCSD special education students and at the time an RCSD board member, and Bryan Hetherington, a public interest lawyer then with the Rochester and Albany-based Empire Justice Center, included a stipulation that the district enter into a legally binding consent decree to comply with the commission’s recommendations.

The consent decree had recently been signed, White told parents at the community meeting, wrongly assuring the group that its particulars were detailed and a copy was available on the RCSD website.

Unable to locate the document on the website, I asked the Empire Justice Center for clarification and received the following emailed response jointly signed by Empire Justice Center senior attorney Maggie Robb and RCSD chief counsel Karl Kristoff. 

“The agreement between Empire Justice Center and the Rochester City School District represents continued progress in what we anticipate will be a multi-year collaborative effort to resolve issues surrounding special education that have plagued the District for more than 30 years. Given that discussions and negotiations are continuing, the parties intend to keep their promise to one another not to comment on the agreement at this point.”

In short, the consent decree at this point is a work in progress. Conditions of the agreement call for the appointment of a court-appointed special master to oversee the district’s special education programs if the RCSD has not met the agreement’s conditions within three years.

Some at the community meeting last month, hosted by activists Howard Eagle and Minister Franklin Florence, the audience was less than fully assured, correctly noting that the RCSD had signed a federal consent decree calling for similar reforms in 1986. 

What now?

Aquino cites high turnover of district leadership and consequent lack of continuity as a cause of the RCSD’s ills.

The terms of four of the board’s currently serving members—Hallmark, LeBron, Davis and Willa Powell—expire in December. Hallmark plans to no longer serve. Might others be replaced by the ballot box?  

White is not up for reelection until 2021. However, he has announced plans to seek a City Court judgeship. 

Also not known is whether the board will in fact hire a new superintendent by White’s announced July target date or how well a new administration’s plans and methods will mesh with the school board’s.

Through decades that have seen the RCSD cycle though a dozen superintendents and a score of board members, RTA’s Urbanski, now a retired teacher who has led the union since the 1980s, has been one of the district’s few constants. It is a distinction that not all see as a positive. Still, one cannot deny that the union chief’s view might be more encompassing by virtue of its length.

The RTA has been something of a bystander in the distinguished educator process. Nevertheless, I asked Urbanski for his take on the report.

It is correct as far as it goes, he says. But Aquino fell short by not recommending what Urbanski thinks is needed to truly address the district’s ills: institution of community schools. These are schools whose staffs would include counselors and health care workers sufficient to meet the needs of a student population overburdened by poverty. Such schools also would serve as neighborhood resource centers for families, offering connection to agency help, and they would be open beyond what are now normal school hours, offering extra instruction to students where needed. 

Such recommendations are not far afield of solutions that White and former Superintendent Deane-Williams also have proposed. Like Urbanski, they point to local schools—School No. 9 and School No. 17, as well as to some extent East High School—that have benefitted from such measures, showing demonstrable improvement and stabilization.  

Lack of funding is a major barrier to such efforts. But Urbanski maintains that there is a way around that: Rather than staff schools with counselors and support staff added to the district’s payroll, use existing nonprofits. Sufficient resources already exist in the community to do that and it could be accomplished within the budgets and missions of local agencies, he insists.

That seems like a tall order and it may be a pipe dream. But so far, no one except Urbanski has looked into it. The extent to which that or any other balm will ultimately salve the RCSD’s ills remains to be seen. 

3 thoughts on “Solving the RCSD puzzle

  1. Pingback: ROC the Future to push for RCSD overhaul - Rochester BeaconRochester Beacon

  2. This gives Urbanski far more credit than is deserved. He is by no means the only one who has “looked into” how to develop successful community school models.

  3. “restorative circles, professional development sessions and retreats”. Good god. Anything to avoid doing anything difficult or controversial. I’d like to see you do a piece looking at state requirements that district administrators come up through the educational system. My understanding is that people with business management experience are not viable candidates, even though the district, at the superintendent level, looks like a massive management challenge. That is part of why we see charter schools supported by area successful businesspeople, but not by unions. And why we grind through superintendents…
    And BTW, having fifteen candidates is not indicative of a rigorous selection process- it is a cattle call and symptomatic of a board that shies away from any kind of difficult choices.

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