The RCSD board: Time for a new cast and a better plot

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We’ve all seen this movie before – and we lived it. 

Here is how the movie plays out. The Rochester City School District’s Board of Education hires a dynamic school superintendent. He or she arrives with idealism and promise. Within a year or so they are fighting with the school board—and asking to get out of this city and their contract. 

Patty Malgieri

Why does this happen? The board refuses to work with the superintendent and insists on micromanaging to protect their own interests. When we worked for former superintendent Bolgen Vargas, every budget season we asked to work collaboratively with the board and every season we were turned down. But how does a superintendent do their job or put forth a meaningful budget when each board member is more interested in pandering to the community and protecting their sacred cows? We lived it constantly. 

Edwin J.Lopez-Soto

At the budget public hearings, board members would refuse to vote for necessary spending cuts and necessary school closures. Individual board members would insist on funding programs led by their friends that were not deserving of public funding. During our four years, various board members insisted we pay North East Area Development Association, whose executive director has been indicted recently for questionable financial practices, $300,000 for unspecified services; Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority for millions of dollars in excess of substantiated levels of student ridership; and other programs with only vague outcomes. 

In each of the above situations and others, the board member had alliances and allegiances to community members that failed to justify the requested expenditures. They weren’t troubled by revenue realities created by decisions like keeping all school buildings open, even though enrollment kept dropping every year. Consider that in the past 10 years the district has lost more than 7,000 students, a population larger than that of several districts combined in the county, but few buildings have been closed.

How can our school board members approve the finance chicanery of last year and still have jobs—when the budget must be cut? It’s easy. Our school board has set itself up as employees of the district working half time in order to qualify for lifetime health care benefits and retirement benefits. The RCSD board is the only school board in New York that is treated in this fashion. In other districts, school board members are either volunteers or board members who receive only a token honorarium. No health care benefits are tendered unless the board member pays for it.

What do we then get for our largesse? A board that is more interested in keeping their “jobs” than helping the kids; a board that is more interested in helping their friends than helping the kids. Many kids in the district, perennially amongst the five poorest in the country, look to the city schools as their only chance to escape poverty.

After years of mind-numbing audit findings, enough is enough. For too long, Rochester school boards have hidden behind the dual excuses of too little state aid and too high poverty. No more excuses. New York must replace this board with a governance structure driven only by the best interest of our kids. Start by considering Yonkers’ results. This city has an appointed, unpaid school board and a student population similar to Rochester’s. But with a budget of $663 million—approximately two-thirds the size of Rochester’s nearly $1 billion budget—the on-time graduation rate is 86 percent, rather than Rochester’s 54 percent.

Patty Malgieri was the chief of staff at the Rochester City School District under former Superintendent Bolgen Vargas and formerly Rochester’s deputy mayor. She also served as manager of administration in the Yonkers Public Schools. Edwin J. Lopez-Soto was general counsel during Vargas’ tenure as superintendent and currently is a faculty member at the Cornell Industrial Labor Relations school. 

22 thoughts on “The RCSD board: Time for a new cast and a better plot

  1. Wonderfully succinct and to the point. Thank you for capturing the reality so perfectly. My question is, how do we get rid of the school board? We can’t depend on elections because that same favoritism that determines how they do their job is used to get elected. We need parties and typical election favoritism out of the system. How do we do that?

    • We have to be realistic. We are NOT going to get “parties out of the system.” If we are really serious about changing the school board (from a group of selfish, incompetent, micro-managers — to people who really have knowledge, commitment, and the best interests of our children and families at heart, then, as opposed to “getting rid of the school board,” which is NOT going to happen — WE MUST ORGANIZE. It is THE only way to end “typical [party-driven] election favoritism.” Just consider, for example, the fact that routinely (for decades) the overwhelming majority of those who are eligible to vote in Rochester Board of Education elections — don’t even come to the polls. They are the people we have to reach, and present with viable candidates. Again, for example, ARE YOU SICK-AND-TIRED-OF-BEING-SICK-AND-TIRED OF VAN WHITE??? IF SO, YOU HAVE A CHOICE NEXT YEAR (2021)!!!

      • Thanks to all for your thoughtful comments.

        The State needs to get involved and do what’s right. They know the Board, with no authority, tied its salary to the salary of City Council. If we remove the salary and health care benefits, then, we can have individuals who care primarily about the kids and not a salary, not health care benefits and not retirement benefits.

        Yes, we can try to vote people off the Board but that’s what is not realistic. We never get enough voters out to make a difference. Who loses? The kids.

      • But we can’t let the same processes go on. Can we start now to organize and get something better to voters? As I’ve said before, I’m willing to facilitate and I’d love to see Patty or Edwin or both to be part of the solution.

        What processes do we need to attract the right candidates? What job description goes out and what experience do we expect? Who decides which candidates will run?

  2. After following the RCSD tragedy for several years now, it is profoundly startling that our elected local and state officials and the Business sector among other local leaders have completely failed in taking firm, effective, and direct action as outlined by Ms. Malgieri. Approximately 25,000 of Monroe County’s children are withering on the vine and being severely neglected from becoming higher level contributors (i.e. by having legitimate high school degrees) to society as entrepreneurs, teachers, leaders, educated employees, knowlegeable consumers, and on and on. Yet those in all of our primarily White Suburban Districts can boast of the exact opposite for their children. This is a flagrant diregard of what is possible as also pointed out by Rick Stein, retired Superintendentof schools in the Gates Chii Central school District, in his May 10th D&C opinion letter yesterday. It also fully portrays the Racism in our midst via the great Urban/Suburban divide. And the current pandemic greatly exacerbates and portrays these differences vividly even more than just a few months ago. When will the so-called Leaders of this Community of Monroe fully and effectively commit and act upon the suggestions by Ms. Malgieri and Rick Stein and with their pocketbooks as well? To put it in a business framework, the ROI on 25,000 of our students is morally and economically off the charts and significant — isn’t it?

  3. Wow, great explanation. Thanks.

    This whole situation has been bothering me, especially since I heard of Terry Dade’s leaving. Last week, I had a discussion with Mike Fernandez, a former board member who now lives in another state and asked him what his thoughts were. Here is a part of his reply:

    “don’t know how relevant my perspective is my time on the Board was 1990-93. While we had our challenges, among the elements that helped with accountability then were a very able CFO (R. Shah) who openly voiced concerns directly to Board and Superintendent, active business community engagement and support for City Schools (remember Rochester Brainpower and the alliance with National Center for Education and the Economy), Mayors and City Council Members that cared not just about school finances but about the City Schools’ future and health, and there were two people on the Board who were working in the business community.”

    I just reviewed the profiles of the Rochester School Board members and was not impressed at all. And I hear that one member of the current board left because she became so frustrated at the inability of the board members to work together. And how embarrassing to hear the school board recently say that they will be working together to communicate more effectively. Really, these are adults. And I am saddened to learn about all of the ties the members have to certain community members that influence where money goes.

    There are several great guides on how a board should work. I truly believe that our current board members have no clue what their responsibilities are.

    So, what are we going to do about it NOW? I’m tired of hearing complaints but having things remain the same. I’m willing to work hard with whatever skills I have to contribute to improve the situation. One thing I can think of is to make sure voters are aware of the seriousness of the job, candidate’s backgrounds, including board membership and, especially, results. Another is to take away the board’s pay and assess what is best from other boards. Could one of you start the process? I’m willing to facilitate getting and keeping things working.

  4. I sit on one of the Democratic committees that gets to vote on which school board candidates get to be designated. But I’m only one vote. I’ve observed a few things during my tenure; many committee members are closely aligned with the RTA and other vested interests. But even more disheartening is the lack of skill, knowledge, ability, educational or governance experience people who are running for school boards possess. During the last round, when we designated candidates, there was a slate of five candidates with mostly faith-based backgrounds and absolutely no academic or fiscal knowledge, led by controversial and perennial candidate Howard Eagle asking to be endorsed.
    A couple of big questions I have is what motivates people to run for seats as Commissioners? And what makes them think they are qualified? And why do we keep electing the same people with a dismal record of success? We are in denial if we believe that there is not a significant racial component that motivates some members and others seek the post as a stepping stone to higher political office.
    In truth, the BOE is so dysfunctional that not many people want the job, no matter how much it pays. Just look at former Commissioner Liz Hallmark, a highly qualified individual who did not seek re-election after one term. I think some recently elected members are sincerely making an effort to improve outcomes, but they are up against the considerable inertia of the old guard. I’m not confident that an appointed board will make much difference; it depends on who makes the appointments and what process is employed. Mayoral control will most likely create an ungainly bureaucracy doubling the size of the City government. And frankly most likely will come with the same sort of political baggage we now have.
    One essential piece, no matter how we govern the district, is to publish a clear and concise job description for the Commissioner of Schools. All Commissioners must undergo formal training and evaluation so that they perform their primary fiduciary and budget oversight roles as intended. They may have some limited role in governing policy as it relates to personnel and contracts. Still, it’s up to the Superintendent to oversee teacher accountability, curriculum, and day to day operations. In essence, the Commissioners must stay in their lane.

    • I just wanted to correct your erroneous assertion that last year we had “a slate of five candidates with mostly faith-based backgrounds and absolutely no academic or fiscal knowledge, led by controversial and perennial candidate Howard Eagle asking to be endorsed.” The truth of the matter is that we had a slate of four, not “five candidates.” One is the father of RCSD graduates, one of whom is a teacher. This same father administers a large, local Black church, and an apartment complex, with hundreds of rental units; one is a former Rochester Board of Education member, and an administrative supervisor at one of Rochester’s largest businesses; one is currently a grandmother of RCSD students, and a mother of four RCSD graduates, one of whom is currently employed by the RCSD. And then there’s me. My record as a former RCSD parent, 23 year RCSD High School Social Studies teacher, and 40-plus-consecutive years as an activist is much too long to enumerate here. So now come again — “a slate of five candidates with mostly faith-based backgrounds and absolutely no academic or fiscal knowledge?” WHAT???

    • Your comments leave me with a few questions:
      How could the committee continue to designate candidates whom they don’t think are qualified? Has this problem ever been brought up to those that could make a change? I totally agree that the job description and needed qualifications need to be updated. Should there be another way to filter candidates? How do we make the commissioner’s job one that people look up and take seriously? How do we get voters, especially the parents of children going to the city schools, take their role seriously?

      • in the current climate, a citizen’s election will not work. The system is too fraught with politics. To those who say we are disenfranchising the rights of parents and citizens, my response is they disenfranchised themselves by voting in incredibly small numbers and allowing the process to be politicized instead of picking candidates who could actually do the job. It’s time for someone to appoint a competent, professional school board with a salary commensurate with the rest of the state and no benefits.

  5. Eliminating the Board of Education will not magically solve the problems of Rochester’s schools–but it is easy to conclude that a continuous conflict over control between the BoE (who are elected amateurs) and the seasoned professionals (like Terry Dade) that are hired to develop a multiyear strategy to improve outcomes is fabulously counterproductive. Re-booting local governance is one decisive action the state can take to right this ongoing human tragedy. See https://rochesterbeacon.com/2020/05/06/rcsd-deja-vu-all-over-again/

    • Our stance regarding the ideas of both mayoral control and state takeover — is that it’s impossible not to share sentiments regarding the need to address the longstanding (5-decades-old-dire-crisis) in the Rochester City School District . However, we do NOT believe that the solution to the crisis lies at the state level, nor necessarily within the idea of mayoral control. We DO believe that the ONLY possible solution is locally based, and must necessarily include a critical mass of Rochester City School District parents, grandparents, other family members, including students, Board members, educators, activists, politicians, union and business leaders, and anyone else who is completely committed, and deadly-serious about helping to produce the widespread, fundamental, significant, measurable, permanent change and improvement, which we have TALKED about for decades. There is a dire need to WORK constantly, consistently, cooperatively, and collaboratively in order to develop, implement, and oversee specific, measurable goals, strategies and tactics. Actually we believe (for the most part) the GOALS have already been laid out via Dr. Jaime Aquino’s 84 Recommendations. Thus, it’s a matter of collectively developing and implementing strategies and tactics.   

  6. Thank you, so much, for this eye-opening discussion.
    I have been following RCSD, on and off, for something like 15 years, without a clue.
    How can such unqualified people continue as BORED members, for year and years,
    while the system has been failing, for so long? Where are their consciences?

    And right now, I wonder, again, how they magically pulled Lesli Myers-Small out of a hat.
    How was she chosen? Were there other candidates? Why was the public not invited?
    How come the Democrat and Chronicle and City News are not writing about the process?

  7. In response to Ms. Funt’s questions. If the process remains the same with an elected school board, I suggest that an ad hoc committee form 18 months before the next school board election. Then begin to identify critical skills and attributes that an effective board would need, just like any other board of directors for a billion-dollar corporation. The committee would then try to identify and recruit candidates that meet those criteria most closely and interview them and make their selections. Finally, the committee would seek independent funding to mount a campaign to inform voters and the public about the selected candidates. Clearly the Democratic Party and Legislative Committees have not been doing the work of identifying and supporting exceptional or qualified candidates. It’s been a random process driven by personal and organizational agendas. Who is willing to join the development committee?

  8. The topic of education in the City of Rochester often elicits strong emotions and opinions – and it should. Few things in our community are as important as educating children. Because of that, RTS understands why the authors wrote this piece. Unfortunately, the implication they made about us in their article is simply not true. We work closely with the Rochester City School District to customize bus service to meet their specific needs during the school year, for summer school and for sports programs, and we charge them what it costs us to provide the service. There is no attempt to make a profit off the taxpayers who are already footing the bill for this. The School District did want us to charge them less than what it cost, but we protected taxpayers by not undercharging them for the work we provided. Proof of the value of our service was revealed when they went out to bid for the work during the 2014-15 school year and we were the lowest cost respondent. We provide a critical system of support for the School District and we look forward to continuing our partnership for many years to come.

  9. Who’s Zoomin Who? The current and previous board misleadership (chaos) is a direct reflection of the people who continue to vote for unnecessary confusion and failure decade after decade.

    The fastest growing student population in the RCSD are Hispanics and fortunately for them, thay have strong advocacy at the grassroots level. Meanwhile as the city and county continues to prepare for the ongoing surge of Hispanic and immigrant students from various countries, the overwhelming majority of black students and their families are void of authentic community leadership and advocacy. Thus, talking heads are empowered by using the cliche of poverty as a rationale to justify their erroneous analysis (status quo) when it comes to the black student population in the RCSD… Who’s Zoomin Who?

  10. It was over a year ago that the Beacon hosted “The Elephant in the Room” conference. Perhaps it’s time to expand the room and add a new elephant for an update and seek (demand?) commitments for real action. See a related Beacon article posted shortly after this conference.

  11. As an RCSD parent, I share the frustration of the authors, but I refuse to give up on democracy. If being dysfunctional and political is a reason to shut down an elected body, I do not believe we would have a Congress or NYS legislature. It is not right to say that the largely black and brown electorate of the city is not as capable as any other electorate in this nation.

    The current board is facing the tough realities identified by the various audits. The final budget is not exactly what former Superintendent Terry Dade proposed but it is balanced, and I believe it is better. It is imperative that the state appointed monitor be named who can maintain that focus on fiscal accountability and educational excellence. This individual should be able to call out the excesses the authors described.

    As a community, we have a responsibility to identify and support potential school board members who will change the current dynamic. If enough people are not voting, where is the get out the vote effort? What about a slate of candidates with deep roots in the community, knowledgeable of education, with a desire to follow evidence based practices, and with a pledge to significantly cut the salary and benefits of the board and to follow the recommendations of Distinguished Educator Jaime Acquino?

    RCSD has many problems. Most ARE rooted in poverty and low state aid and racism. A strong board working TOGETHER with a strong superintendent and a strong state monitor could eliminate the distraction of bad governance and effectively begin the work on the real problems that RCSD students face.
    I challenge the political, business, and civic leaders of this community to identify, champion, and support new board members who can work together with the newest elected members of the board to make this vision a reality. Do not give up on democracy!

  12. Splendid article and many thanks.

    The board should all consider themselves very lucky indeed that both our now departed superintendent and CFO were able to be parachuted to positions outside this farce. legal actions predicated on the very obvious difference between the Board’s actual financial situation as opposed to that which the board presented as a potential employer, would have been breathtakingly expensive, and ugly. I have no doubt both men knew where all the skeletons were buried by the time they had decided enough was enough.

  13. Is it merely a fantasy? Do away with County-wide and City independent school “districts” and redraw…Initiate a quadrant system…If we’re going to dream, let’s dream for an ideal. Nobody in New York State likes the property taxes we pay for questionable educational results. We should all be outraged. Enough already!!!We’ve lived in Monroe County more than 50 years. Tightening a screw here and there…adding scotch tape to one empty promise and “study” after another… hasn’t worked.

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