RCSD upbeat over court victory, state response

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Rochester school superintendent Terry Dade and school board president Van White are upbeat after what they see as good news for the Rochester City School District on two fronts. At the same time, both acknowledge that the long-troubled Rochester City School District still faces considerable challenges. 

In an Aug. 2 letter to White, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia had a mostly positive response to the district’s revised plan to implement the more than 80 recommendations Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino laid out in a tough November 2018 assessment. 

On the same day, state Supreme Court Justice Scott Odorisi handed down a decision scratching the city’s plan to put before voters a non-binding referendum that would have called for the dissolution of the city’s seven-member school board for not less than five years and for the state to put a new, yet-to-be-defined governing body in charge of the district.  

Heavily promoted by Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, the referendum was at least partially premised on Aquino’s poor assessment of the district and broad hints by Elia that a state takeover could be in the cards if the district did not get its act together.

Elia rejected an earlier RCSD response to Aquino’s critique as inadequate. This week she pronounced the district’s second try to be more on target but still needing further work. 

“These efforts ensure that the RCSD has a cohesive vision for improvement through its action plan. We look forward to supporting the district’s efforts to implement the action plan and ultimately improve outcomes,” the commissioner wrote in the Aug. 2 missive.

A couple of possible speed bumps: After abruptly announcing last week that she is quitting to take another job, Elia will be gone at the end of this month. Aquino, who just as abruptly quit earlier with little explanation, is already gone. 

In an earlier interview, Board of Regents member Wade Norwood told the Rochester Beacon he expects to see another distinguished educator named. The Regents have named an interim commissioner, but have not yet appointed a successor to Elia,

White says that he is encouraged by Elia’s positive response to the RCSD’s revised plan and after an hour-long conversation with Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa last week he does not see the possibility that a new commissioner of education will radically depart from Elia’s position as likely. Similarly, White does not see an appointment of a new distinguished educator as troublesome.

Longstanding problems Elia hoped to see corrected include the RCSD’s perennially low graduation rates. Problems Aquino highlighted as underlying the district’s poor outcomes included the school board’s proclivity to micromanage district affairs and a consequent high turnover of superintendents. Included in Aquino’s report was an opinion of an unnamed informant who believed that “no superintendent could work with this board.” 

Dade’s predecessor, Barbara Deane-Williams, quit before her contract was up last year, departing Dec. 31. Dade, who has been on the job for a month, took over from Interim Superintendent Dan Lowengard, who after serving a six-month term, elaborately praised the board as the best and most dedicated he had ever worked with over the course of a decades-long career. 

White tells the Beacon that when it gets final certification from results it recently submitted to the state, the RCSD plans to announce a 57.8 percent June graduation rate, a 15-year high and a 4 percentage point improvement over last year’s showing. Projections put the August graduation “north of 60 percent,” White adds. Graduation rates, he says, are the most important indicator of progress.

In their conversation last week, Rosa agreed that “the work has to continue,” White says, which along with Elia’s more positive response to the district’s revised action plan, he takes as a strong indicator that the threat of a state takeover has receded.

Perhaps, but the city quickly announced plans to appeal Odorisi’s ruling.  

In an online post addressed to the city’s children, Warren called the ruling “a grave injustice” and “the most recent example where adults twist and abuse the law to protect themselves.” Court filings “never even once” mentioned the children of the district or their parents in the court filings. The case was not about children but “about denying children the right to succeed.”

Work to be done

In an afternoon press availability, Dade declined to comment on the court decision, which came in response to a case filed by the RCSD. The dispute is between the school board and the mayor, and does not directly involve him, the superintendent said. 

At the same time, Dade conceded that he “had a rough start with the mayor,” calling a meeting with Warren some three weeks ago “an unfortunate occurrence.”

Not happy with Warren’s call for an appeal, White says of the court victory, “yeah, it’s good news, but nobody’s doing an end-zone dance. This is not a game and it’s not a war. We have a lot of work to do.”

Like White, Dade sees Elia’s letter as a meaningful step forward and one that should quell or at least put on hold talk of a state takeover. 

Dade characterized the adjustments Elia calls for as “minor,” Still, he conceded, achieving some revisions the commissioner is calling for would involve heavy lifting, among them:

  • Specify how the district will address parent perceptions of racial bias and inequality;  
  • Improve procedures and supervision of parent liaisons to ensure that they are not pulled to other duties and respond quickly and effectively to parent concerns; and
  • Tighten central office data collection to make sure that central office has a true and up-to-date picture of what results and problems are in individual school building.

While they might not be easily achieved, those revisions are already part of his ongoing plan to improve RCSD results, Dade says, a plan that he and the school board are cooperating on.

White concurs. The board and the superintendent were on a retreat and had recently jointly attended training sessions on proper governance at Harvard University and are on a positive track, he insists. 

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon’s senior writer.

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