Questions await the RCSD superintendent finalists

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When finalists for Rochester City School District superintendent of schools meet the public at a forum planned by the city’s school board this weekend, one question might not be easy to answer: To whom will the new superintendent report? 

The new hire will step into a financially and educationally challenged district that has been under state Department of Education scrutiny for months. 

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has previously warned the board that the RCSD could face a state takeover. Should such a takeover happen, the new superintendent’s putative boss, the seven-member Board of Education, would be shorn of its authority. How long it might be before local control might be restored would not be clear.

As the school board this month moved into the final phase of a now six-month long superintendent search, Elia let the board know she continues to be dissatisfied with the district’s plan to fix ills laid out by Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino, who last November filed a scathing 84-point report, citing long-standing dysfunction as endemic to the school board and the district it oversees. 

Board president Van White portrayed Elia’s recent dissatisfaction as being over relatively minor points. He predicts that any differences between the board’s and the commissioner’s vision will be easily worked out. 

Elia had previously labeled the district plan—largely authored by the school board—incoherent. Last month, she gave the district six weeks to fix it.   

While not directly calling for a state takeover, in a State of the City speech delivered two days before Elia let her continuing dissatisfaction with the RCSD be known, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren called on the state Department of Education as well as the Legislature to take a more active role in RCSD affairs.

Speaking to attendees at a community meeting last week, White described the school board’s upcoming candidate forums, a two-day event slated for May 4-5, as a “focus group” designed to give the school community and a broader slice of the Rochester community a chance to provide input that would help the school board zero in on a final choice.

The forum’s format appears to have been designed to ensure that students, parents and RCSD employees as well as other community members are heard equally. Whether the event’s tightly controlled format will satisfy attendees hoping to directly quiz the candidates remains to be seen.  

A new RCSD superintendent will take the helm while the Rochester district is in the midst of working out a consent decree with litigants who accused it of failing to hew to special education laws. 

If a pact between the district and the litigants is finalized, it will be memorialized as a court-supervised agreement known as consent decree. It would be the third court-overseen special education pact the RCSD has inked since the mid-1980s.  

The school board announced last week that it had winnowed its pool of superintendent prospects from an initial field of 30 to four finalists. The national search was organized by BWP & Associates, an Illinois-based headhunting firm specializing in matching school districts and administrators. 

All four finalists for the Rochester job are African-American males. None hail from New York. Three of the four have had peripatetic careers as school administrators or advisers to public school systems, hopscotching from state to state with some frequency. Three of the four have applied for superintendent jobs in other districts within the past year. 

The local candidate forums are scheduled to be held at the Freddie Thomas Learning Center at 625 Scio St. Both are to begin at 12:30 p.m.   

The finalists will not take questions directly from audience members. Instead, each will be called on to respond to a list of identical pre-submitted and pre-screened queries. 

The school board instructs individuals seeking to question candidates to submit their queries in writing online. To be considered, questions should be filed no later than 12 p.m. May 2 and should be related to a leadership profile developed by the board, a school board press release advises. 

Two of the four finalists are to appear on May 4 with the two remaining applicants appearing on May 5. After introducing themselves, each candidate is slated to respond to questions that have been “categorized, vetted, and finalized by members of the district’s law department,” the board press release states. 

Audience members who attend the events can also submit written questions for consideration. Both days’ events are slated to live stream on the RCSD website and on Spectrum Channel 1301.

The finalists are:

  • Terry Dade, an assistant superintendent in Fairfax County Public Schools in Falls Church, Va. Dade currently oversees the 180,000-student district’s Region 3, which includes 45 schools. Fairfax County, where Dade himself hails from and where he spent much of his career, is a prosperous Washington, D.C., suburb with a population of 1.2 million. Its $118,279 median household income compares to a U.S, median household income of $60,338and is more than triple Rochester’s $30,784 median household income. Dade was a finalist for superintendent jobs in Columbus, Ohio, in 2018 and Beaufort County, N.C., earlier this year.
  • Devon Horton, chief of schools for the 101,000-student Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky., where he supported a districtwide initiative to enhance technical-career education. Horton was named to the Louisville post last year after serving a four-year stint as deputy superintendent in the East St. Louis School District 189 in East St. Louis, Ill. Earlier this year, he was a finalist for the Grand Rapids, Mich., school superintendent’s job.
  • Sito Narcisse, chief of schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee, where he is responsible for the day-to-day operations of all 167 schools with 86,000 students. Before taking his current job, Narcisse served three years as associate superintendent at Prince George’s County Public Schools in Upper Marlboro, Md. Narcisse has also served as acting chief school improvement officer, director of school performance/director of school support and improvement in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, and has held the position of principal at both Boston Public Schools and Pittsburgh. Narcisse last year was a finalist for the job of Newark, N.J., school superintendent. 
  • George Eric Thomas, current chief turnaround officer for the Georgia State Board of Education. Previously, Thomas served five years as chief support officer at the University of Virginia Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education in Charlottesville, Va. He was also a part-time consultant for three years at the Ohio Department of Education and has served in multiple roles in Cincinnati Public Schools, including chief innovation officer, principal coach, principal, district coordinator, and teacher.

In the opening 75-minute session on May 4, Narcisse is slated to answer questions culled from parents and students, while Thomas will be called on to respond to questions submitted by RCSD staffers and community members. 

After a 15-minute break, a second 75-minute May 4 session is slated at which Narcisse is give his answers to the same RCSD employee and community questions that Thomas answered earlier, while Thomas will give his answers to parent and student queries. 

The May 5 session follows the same format with Dade and Horton slated to follow the same pre-set course in the same order as Narcisse and Thomas in the May 4 session.   

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