RCSD: Deja vu all over again

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A year ago, the Rochester Beacon sponsored a Solutions Forum on the future of the Rochester City School District. Prompted by a scathing report from Jaime Aquino, the state-appointed distinguished educator, the forum explored various alternatives to the status quo.

In advance of the forum, the Beacon solicited articles from several of the invited presenters and, following the event, posted a video of the forum’s keynote speech by Christopher Cerf, former commissioner of New Jersey’s public schools. (Links to each appear below.) 

Underlying the search for a new paradigm was an assumption that the district had hit bottom, that things really couldn’t get much worse. At this level of dysfunction, “better” or “worse” is pretty subjective: To me, the abrupt departure of Superintendent Terry Dade confirms that nothing has improved. 

Superintendent Terry Dade

Dade seemed to be a solid choice for Rochester. We’ll never know, however, as his entire brief tenure was consumed with contending with the Board of Education-created financial crisis. Originally revealed in a Sept. 19 letter to state Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, Board President Van White cited “overspending in some areas.”

This disclosure triggered a state audit that forecast a year-end deficit of $40.5 million when published on Jan. 23. Concern about dissonance between positive statements made by the district when seeking short-term financing and what RCSD officials likely knew at the time prompted the Securities and Exchange Commission to launch its own investigation at the end of November. Bitter disagreement between the board and Dade over efforts to fill the fiscal hole are part of what precipitated Dade’s announced departure.

On April 25, 2019, the Beacon posted a lengthy piece I wrote titled “Breaking the cycle of failure in Rochester’s schools.” With Dade’s departure, I think it’s worth revisiting my argument:

RCSD cannot solve its own problems. It is time for the New York State to acknowledge its constitutional obligation to provide an education to Rochester’s children and take bold action. 

■ The Rochester Board of Education is too powerful. Better compensated than any other school board in the state, Rochester’s board functions as a shadow superintendent’s office and is far too involved in the day-to-day operations of the district. Elected in a one-party town, it is also undemocratic and too beholden to the interests of district employees.

■ Administrators and teachers are insulated by contract and by civil service rules from structural changes promoted by superintendents. Administrators lack the power to select and motivate a team at the building level; superintendents lack the power to hold building administrators accountable for student outcomes.

Sweeping reform is beyond the power of local government. Last June, Mayor Lovely Warren, with the support of City Council, announced a referendum on RCSD governance. Intended for the November ballot, the referendum sought a five-year period of state control. The school board successfully fought  inclusion of the referendum in the courts, however, and the referendum was never held.

The ball is in the state’s court. It would be unconscionable for the chancellor to allow a repetition of the Dade appointment and departure. There is no simple solution here. 

Rochester needs a receivership model that involves a period of complete state control followed by a complete “reboot” of local governance. Others have proposed other ideas, including a New Orleans-style “all charter” model, community schools, some form of shared governance with city government, the creation of countywide magnet schools and other options.

When the crisis of COVID-19 has passed, the crisis of the Rochester schools will remain. The coronavirus has ended the lives of many in our community. Our city’s schools, by sending our children into the workforce without the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, prevent far more lives from truly beginning in the first place. 

Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon opinion editor.

Beacon forum presentations and papers

Keynote Speech video

Dr. Christopher Cerf


Charter schools are helping to solve Rochester’s education crisis 

Anna Hall, CEO, Northeast Charter Schools Network


Rochester needs socioeconomically diverse, cross-district magnet schools

Mark Hare and Don Pryor, Great Schools for All


Community schools remove barriers to learning

Kirstin Barclay, Farash Foundation


The positive trajectory of the UR-East High partnership

Dr. Shaun Nelms, Superintendent, East High School


Panel videos from 2019 conference

4 thoughts on “RCSD: Deja vu all over again

  1. Does anyone know HOW the Rochester School Board came to select the new superintendent?
    All of a sudden, Terry Dade leaves, through a “back door.” All of a sudden a successor is picked.

    Isn’t education about making, EDUCATED choices? Why the secrecy and magical thinking?
    What gives? Can the Rochester Beacon report on how Dr. Lesli Myers-Small was choosen?

  2. “Our city’s schools, by sending our children into the workforce without the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, prevent far more lives from truly beginning in the first place. ”

    I agree with your ending, but why not say more about LEARNING and TEACHING, itself?
    This health crisis is putting a new focus on the HOW of learning and teaching, we can use.

    But learning and teaching go beyond literacy and numeracy. Students need to cultivate
    interest and curiosity, and they need to practice, practice, practice.

    My fear is that all this debate on RCSD centers on political control, not student control
    of learning, for its own sake. So, let me again suggest the funny ALTERNATIVE MATH
    spoof, on YouTube. I would make this required viewing, for all involved with RCSD:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zh3Yz3PiXZw&t=171s ALTERNATIVE MATH 8min

    (Watching ALT MATH costs nothing. It takes 8 minutes to watch and it can be discussed)

  3. If Rochester does not effectively address the lack of family-based social, educational and nutritional support that is lacking in the homes, if any, underperforming students, student achievement in the Rochester City Schools cannot be improved.

    It is not a problem with the schools. The few middle class students in the district do just fine. They have always been successful. It’s a problem with the quality, preparation and support of the raw material.

    Monkeying around with the schools themselves is a fool’s errand.

    People who have not worked with economically, socially and culturally deprived children simply do not understand the problem.

    • The schools have to take the social context as given and work from that starting point. I know that you speak from a foundation of experience, given the commitment you made to the BoE. The size of the challenge makes it all the more important that the BoE hire a good superintendent–and we’ve have had many–and give their strategies enough time to work. Starting over with a new plan with every new superintendent is a guarantee of failure. We can’t expect Brighton-like student achievement but we can and should expect better.

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