Depending on the results of November’s election, two to four new Rochester School Board members will be seated in January. Not at all clear is whether the state, urged on by Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, will pull the board members’ chairs out from under them.
Long dissatisfied with the Rochester City School District’s test scores and graduation rates and skeptical of the school board’s management, state Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia has hinted that the state could take over the district. Last month, Warren issued an invitation for her to do so and laid groundwork that could lead to the board’s dissolution.
Warren’s move makes the school board’s fate anything but clear—even more so now that Elia has announced she will step down at the end of August. The picture without state intervention is no less muddy, however.
If past elections are any guide, the four top vote getters in the June 25 Democratic primary—two incumbents and two newcomers—who bested eight other contenders for two seats on the seven-member school board are shoo-ins to win the November general election.
Winners of the primary were incumbents Beatriz Lebron and Willa Powell and newcomers Ricardo Adams, a worker at the Center for Youth and husband of former RCSD board member Mary Adams, and Amy Maloy, a district parent and Brighton social studies teacher.
Board president Van White, who lost a Democratic primary bid for a City Court judgeship, Vice President Cynthia Elliott and member Natalie Sheppard remain to serve out terms that expire at the end of next year.
Judith Davis, a current board member, lost in the primary. She is a relatively new appointee to the board who cast her lot in the primary with a slate of three fellow activists who are members of a coalition that sees institutional and overt racism among some teachers and administrators as a root cause behind many of troubled urban system’s ills. She remains on the board for the balance of her current term, which is up in December.
Davis and her colleagues could still win in November. The four-person slate is urging city voters to write their names in on the fall ballot.
Rounding out the activist slate are: Howard Eagle, a former RCSD teacher and SUNY Brockport adjunct professor who previously has run unsuccessfully for a school board seat and several times sought the Rochester Teachers Association presidency; Clifford Florence, associate minister of Rochester’s Central Church of Christ; and Andrea Bryant, a longtime activist who has worked with the city schools.
The group does not favor the mayor’s proposal to put the locally elected board out to pasture for five years but is not opposed to state intervention. They want to take control of the board to make it a conduit to convey to the state the concerns of city’s minority community, whose children account for a majority of RCSD students.
“The foundation of our campaign is community organizing,” Eagle told a group of black voters in a pre-primary pitch. “Improvement never gets here. It’s always around the corner. Our goal is to get a critical mass of community stakeholders.”
The uncertainty ahead
No matter who wins in November, the RCSD is likely to face an uncertain future as conflicting proposals swirl in the wake of a scathing report issued last fall by Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino.
New York’s distinguished educator position was created under a 2007 law authorizing the Board of Regents to name such officials “to assist low-performing districts in improving their academic performance.”
Regulations call for such intervention after districts have missed Education Department improvement targets for four years. Rochester is the third district to have come under the law. The others are Buffalo, which has been released from distinguished educator oversight, and Hempstead, Long Island, which has been under Distinguished Educator Jack Bierworth since 2017.
Aquino’s 60-page report faulted the school board for inappropriately “micromanaging” the district, listed what Aquino found to be numerous failures by the district’s administration, and laid out a more than 80-point remediation plan. Those points included the district’s needs to confront institutional and overt racism in its ranks and to curb an atmosphere of “fear and intimidation” and longstanding problems with special education.
The school board met an initial February deadline to make a plan to carry out Aquino’s recommendations. But Elia rejected it as inadequate. She has been weighing a second, amended plan the board submitted several weeks ago. The commissioner so far has not responded and has given no indication publicly as to where she might come down on the district’s second stab.
Locally based Board of Regents member Wade Norwood says he does not know and would not speculate on her position. He indicated, however, that he personally does not see the amended plan, which calls for board training sessions in proper governance, as yet hitting the mark.
“I am not personally given any sense of comfort that we’ll see meaningful improvement through training,” Norwood says.
Aquino’s apparently sudden decision last month to quit has not been helpful in clarifying the RCSD’s path forward or what the state’s role might be in determining it. Neither Aquino nor Elia have offered a detailed explanation for his unexpected move. Elia’s decision to leave further clouds the picture.
Norwood says he expects to see another distinguished educator appointed to take over from Aquino and believes that person would expect the RCSD to hew to the extensive recommendations in Aquino’s November report.
In the meantime, Warren is proposing a state takeover of the city schools in which the district’s elected board would be eliminated. Last month, City Council narrowly OK’d putting on the November ballot a non-binding referendum approving a change to the city’s charter that would eliminate the school board.
“(I)t is the intent of the city to ask its citizens to determine … if removal of the Board of Commissioners of the City School District for a period of not less than five years to allow the state Commissioner of Education to institute processes and procedures would provide a better outcome for our city students,” the mayor explained in a statement accompanying the legislation’s release.
The referendum and school board candidates are slated to appear on the same November ballot, raising the possibility that city residents could simultaneously vote four school commissioners into office and vote to eliminate the body those commissioners would be joining.
How far apart?
Whether some rapprochement is possible between the mayor and the board—now or in whatever composition it emerges in January—is not clear. While the mayor is calling for the board to be dissolved, the board has hired a new superintendent and proceeded to meet and plan for the coming year. If the two sides are talking to each other, they are publicly staying mum about it.
Board president White did not respond to an interview request. He has previously cited a roughly 30-point uptick in graduation rates over the past 10 years as proof that criticisms of the district are overblown and the city’s schools in fact are improving.
Elliott, the board vice president, declined to comment for this article.
“I don’t want to get caught up in the noise,” she wrote in an email. “I’m interested in getting the work done. Whatever happens will happen. But in the meantime, we still have black and brown children to educate.”
If voters say yes to Warren’s proposal, state Legislature approval would be needed to amend the city charter and eliminate the board. If voters turn it down, the state still could take action on its own. What action the Board of Regents—or Elia’s successor—might take is not clear, however.
Elia so far has indicated only that she sees the district’s initial response to Aquino’s critique as falling short and that some action is needed. With Elia and Aquino out of the picture and a permanent successor to Elia not yet named, the status of the RCSD’s revised response to Aquino’s report seems to be for now in a sort of limbo.
The Board of Regents this week said it is naming Beth Berlin, executive deputy commissioner of education, to serve as Elia’s replacement in an acting role until the board can name a successor. This is Berlin’s second stint in that role. She served a five-month term as acting commissioner in 2015 between the Jan. 1 resignation of Elia’s predecessor, John King, and Elia’s appointment to the post in May.
“Not taking appropriate action would be a disservice to Rochester’s children,” Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa wrote in an email to the Rochester Beacon last week.
“We remain extremely concerned with the dire situation in the Rochester City School District and stand ready to work with all parties on a proposal that ensures that the status quo does not continue,” Rosa said.
However, she added, “there doesn’t appear to be a unified approach from state and local elected officials, union officials and the community on what the appropriate legislative pathway is.”
Rochester Teachers Association president Adam Urbanski opposes Warren’s proposal. Elimination of the elected body by legislative fiat would be an undemocratic insult to the city’s voters, the RTA chief argues.
Norwood is urging community members and RCSD stakeholders to contact elected officials, Board of Regents members and Education Department officials to provide input on what the community would like to see the state do. The commissioner ultimately will follow a template the Legislature lays out, he predicts.
What shape might such a template take?
The Rochester Beacon last week queried local Assembly members Harry Bronson and David Gantt and Sen. Joseph Robach, asking each to outline where they stand on Warren’s proposal and whether they had conferred on the question of what state intervention might look like. As of this article’s publication date, none of the three legislators had responded.
In mid-June, Bronson outlined proposed legislation that would keep the board in place but give the state more control over the city schools. His plan calls for upping state investment to add health and counseling services and add hours to the most troubled city schools, a path that at least partly mirrors Warren’s call to have the district add 19 community schools.
That legislation is still in draft form but could be submitted before the end of the current two-year session, a Bronson legislative aide told the Beacon this week. The aide did not know whether Bronson and Gantt or Bronson and Robach had conferred on the question.
In a statement issued in June, Warren dismissed Bronson’s proposal as “no solution at all. It’s more of the same. His goal is to prevent parents from having a true say in how their children are educated.”
Gantt, a political mentor of Warren, has publicly stated that he sees Warren’s proposal as a better move than Bronson’s plan.
Inappropriate board interference in district operations was high on the list of woes Aquino detailed. “No superintendent could work with this board,” his November report quotes an unnamed RCSD interviewee as postulating.
Former interim RCSD superintendent Dan Lowengard paints a different picture. A retired Syracuse school official, Lowengard led the RCSD from January to June, temporarily taking the reins after his immediate predecessor, former RCSD superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams, quit with two years left on her contract.
In what appeared to be a spontaneous and unsolicited testimonial delivered in late June as he handed the reins to incoming Superintendent Terry Dade, Lowengard was unstinting in his praise of the board.
“I know there’s been a lot said and all that, but I’ve worked for a number of boards in my career. This is the first board (where), honestly, there is disagreement, but it’s always been disagreement about how fast can we change things for kids,” Lowengard said.
“I’ve always had a board where somebody’s fighting about the money. This group doesn’t fight about the money. There’s no expense that they’ll pass up if it’s to benefit kids. Although we have to rein that in, it has been the best board that I’ve ever worked for. And also, with all the slings and arrows, they seem to keep their head about what’s important and the kids.”
In his parting shot, Lowengard also expressed a high level of confidence in Dade.
“I’ve met Terry; I trust him. I hope he (stays here) five, 10, 15 years,” Lowengard said. “Stability is really key for this district. … You’ve got a good one here. I hope you hold on to him. I think he’ll do great stuff.”
In emails to the Warren administration first reported by the Democrat and Chronicle, Board of Regents vice chancellor Brown, laid out a plan under which the state would appoint not only a new school board but also name a new superintendent. Brown, a Rochester attorney, did not return the Rochester Beacon’s calls. He has characterized that plan as not final.
“As leaders of the Board of Regents, we will take a more active role in the activities of the department during this time of transition and the work of the department will continue as usual,” Brown and Rosa promised in a joint statement this week.
Whether the school board stays or goes, Dade would be virtually certain to remain as superintendent, Norwood believes.
The Hempstead experience
The Hempstead school district’s nearly two years under a distinguished educator have not gone smoothly. How closely the Hempstead district’s ills match Rochester’s could be a matter for debate.
During his first year overseeing the district in 2017, Distinguished Educator Jack Bierworth reported to Elia that he wondered whether fractious board members “have the capacity—or even the willingness—to work together on issues of substance for the benefit of the students.”
When Bierworth was named, the district was suffering financial ills and some of its schools were to contending with gang-related violence. In the meantime, board factions jousted over control.
Last year, control shifted. Voters ousted two board members and voted in two new ones. A month later, the newly seated board voted to suspend the superintendent, who had been hired in 2017 when the two members who were voted out last year were in the majority.
Charges of corruption flew in both directions between the board and the sidelined superintendent. But Bierworth later praised the new board for working together to develop an action plan. The suspended superintendent and the district have continued to battle in court in a contest that the ousted superintendent’s lawyers say has cost taxpayers $850,000.
In June, two Long Island state lawmakers put forward a bill that would authorize a partial state takeover of the Hempstead school district.
Put forward in the Assembly by Hempstead Democrat Taylor Raynor and matched in the Senate by Kevin Thomas, D-Levittown, the measure would leave the Hempstead School Board in place but add three state-appointed members who would monitor and at least partly control the district.
The bill calls for the commissioner to appoint two oversight members to the town’s school board with a third to be named by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. The new appointees’ salaries would be paid by the state. The oversight members cannot be residents, relatives or employees of the district and should have experience in school district finances, the legislation states. The bill would go into effect immediately and would end in 2024.
In Hempstead, school board members flanked by 100 residents and district employees protested the bill. How might a similarly crafted measure sit with Rochester residents and the RCSD?