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.
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
Dr. Christopher Cerf
Anna Hall, CEO, Northeast Charter Schools Network
Mark Hare and Don Pryor, Great Schools for All
Kirstin Barclay, Farash Foundation
Dr. Shaun Nelms, Superintendent, East High School