If the stakes weren’t so high—especially for Rochester’s struggling children—it would have been almost entertaining to watch the recent jousting match between the mayor and the Rochester City School Board.
Lovely Warren’s push to let Rochester voters weigh in on the need for a state takeover of city schools was aggressive and clever. It would have kept the issue front and center until the new legislative session started in January, and it would have given some state legislators the rationale and cover they needed to support the takeover measure in Albany.
Yet nearly as soon as the referendum idea was announced, it was challenged in court by the city school board as being improper. When I first heard of the school board’s lawsuit to stop the referendum, my initial impression was that the board was shooting itself in the foot. Their legal challenge seemed anti-democratic, selfish and desperate.
But after pouring over the well-articulated decision by Judge Scott Odorisi—who presided over the case in state Supreme Court—it also seems clear that the school board was on solid legal ground. There is ample on-point statutory authority and case law to support Odorisi’s decision. As explained in his written opinion, “the state unequivocally occupies the entire field of public education,” thus resulting in state law preempting (and making “meaningless”) the outcome of any referendum held by the city. And a meaningless vote—what becomes solely an “advisory referendum”—is clearly not permissible in New York.
So, while the mayor has vowed to appeal Odorisi’s decision, she is not likely to succeed.
Yet there is no cause for despair. The planned referendum was only a means to an end, not the end itself. The real goal was—and is—to determine if there is public support for a state takeover. And there are three clear alternatives to explore from here.
The first one is to engage the services of a reputable national polling firm to conduct a scientifically reliable poll of Rochester voters. I reached out to SurveyUSA, a prolific polling firm that has among the highest ratings for accuracy according to rankings compiled by famed statistician Nate Silver. According to SurveyUSA president Ken Alper, a properly designed survey of 500 Rochester residents would cost about $12,500. This is the cheapest and easiest path forward.
The second alternative would involve leveraging this November’s election for city school board to let voters express their feelings about a state takeover. In particular, city voters will be able to vote for up to four candidates for school board on Election Day. Instead of voting for any of them, voters can instead write in “Lovely Warren” on their ballots.
Interestingly, when school board members were running for election in 2017 (and voters got to vote for up to three candidates), city voters chose to leave 28,541 of those spaces blank. In fact, if “blank” was a candidate in the 2017 election, it would have trounced the field (the next highest vote getter, Van White, received 17,663 votes).
Since the mayor and the school board have become the symbols of the fight over the state takeover, a write-in campaign to elect Warren to the school board would clearly signal which side voters are on. Obviously, Warren would not take the position, but the message could not get any clearer.
For this path to succeed, approximately $50,000 to $75,000 in campaign advertising would help to educate the public on the issue and what they need to do.
Finally, the third option is to privately fund a separate citywide election. Though this is perhaps not well known, most of the voting equipment and services needed to run an election are sourced from companies in the election services industry (e.g., https://www.honestballot.com/).
And private organizations—like unions and co-ops—regularly contract with such companies for things like voting machines and to perform third-party “supervision and certification” of the outcome.
Depending on the level of services needed, an election using 20 voting booths around Rochester would likely cost $200,000 to $300,000. This is certainly the most complex and expensive of the options, but how could someone argue with the result?
But the larger point is that Odorisi’s decision does not have to be the end of the road for state takeover proponents. Warren has so far been creative in pushing the case against the current school board. She has options if she wants to take that creativity one step further.
After all, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Alex Zapesochny is Rochester Beacon’s publisher.