Upheaval in the city schools

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At the start of a tumultuous Rochester City School Board meeting last Thursday, Marlene Blocker presented East Upper school’s Susan B. Anthony award to Camille Varela for her outstanding academic achievement and work outside the school.

“We are so proud of your values and you are simply beautiful inside and out,” Blocker said.

By the end of the night, Blocker knew, if she was involved with Varela’s future at East, it might no longer be as superintendent. In a 4-3 split, the Board of Education voted not to extend the educational partnership organization with the University of Rochester, which gave East Lower and Upper increased autonomy and structure separate from the school district. Instead, East will return to full RCSD control in June 2025.

Though a dramatic event of the evening, it was far from the only significant development. Parent leadership groups used their board reports to express confusion and frustration over news of RCSD superintendent Carmine Peluso’s move to Churchville-Chili. In addition, State Monitor Jaime Alicea gave his initial report on the district’s proposed 2024-25 school budget. 

The meeting stretched to nearly five hours and reflected the current chaotic and sometimes contradictory nature of the district. In the coming months, the board will have to find and hire a new district superintendent and create a transition plan for East, on top of finalizing the 2024-25 budget and carrying out a school reconfiguration plan.

Another departure

The decision to end the EPO was made against the backdrop of Peluso’s move to Churchville-Chili in June of this year. It is a move that will require the superintendent to plan for a smooth transition to another district while simultaneously finishing matters at RCSD.

Even if he is involved in developing the transition plan, his exit means the next RCSD superintendent will be responsible for fully transitioning East back to the district. In addition, new leadership will carry out the comprehensive reconfiguration plan that will close 11 schools and five buildings and simultaneously reestablish a middle school system, move schools to different locations, and open five new schools.

While this plan is a necessity based on declining enrollment, parent leader groups expressed their frustrations at the meeting. 

“The superintendent position, as it currently exists and connects to the Board of Education as a way to oversee the Rochester City School District, it’s a broken system,” said Rebecca Hetherington, a member of the Parent Leadership Advisory Council. “We have watched as too much has been put on one person again, and here we are again. In the last eight years there have been seven superintendents not counting the interim superintendents that have had to return multiple times.” 

Similarly, Diveth Garcia, president of the Rochester Bilingual Education Council, and Catherine Barouth, vice president of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council, say their groups were surprised and disappointed at the announcement. 

They still have concerns about the reconfiguration plan, particularly for vulnerable students. For example, over 1,000 students with disabilities are still being moved into different schools based on program closings by Peluso, Hetherington said.  

“Personally, I have been a district parent for over 16 years. I’ve lost count of the number of superintendents in that time. While the change has not been as frequent, there have also been too many special education chiefs to count,” Barouth added. “We are staring straight in the face of a key reason why parents have lost faith and trust in the district. Leadership does not stick around to provide a consistent path in the education of our children and the board does not support the people they hire. 

“Every year or two, someone leaves, either pushed out by the board, unable to work with the board or chasing bigger fish,” she continued. “Our families are left wondering, who really cares enough about our kids to truly transform this district? Or worse yet, families are left thinking, no one believes in our kids enough to stick around. They don’t care about us. This is the message the constant turnover sends.” 

In their latest report, RCSD officials have said students with disabilities and English Language Learners had the highest dropout rate across all student categories. In the 2020 cohort, students with disabilities and English Language Learners are projected to have dropout rates of 12.9 percent and 19.9 percent, respectively. (For all students districtwide, the rate was 7.9 percent.)

Elliott said discussions about a replacement have already taken place and the public would be informed about developments. Further details were not forthcoming, however. 

Barouth thanked Elliott for informing parent groups of the personnel move quickly and for arranging a meeting to occur soon. However, all parent leader groups noted other meetings had been canceled or ignored in the past. 

“This administration and this board have been absent from our meetings with the sole exception being the outstanding participation of the special education department. This is part of the problem,” Barouth said. “Our meetings are via Zoom. We make it easy for our families to attend. You can pop in and listen while you drive, while you make dinner. We’re not even asking the board and administration to participate. 

“We’re asking you to listen. Listen to our families,” she continued. “Where have you been?” 

RSCD budget

The public last Thursday also had its first look at the proposed 2024-25 budget

State Monitor Alicea commended Peluso for his preparation of the budget, which he said now fell within the state Department of Education format and represented a good step forward for the district. 

The proposed budget is set at $1.06 billion, a 4.4 percent increase from the previous year. Goals for this year include increasing Math and ELA proficiencies; addressing chronic absenteeism; updating districtwide materials, such as textbooks and assessment tools; enhancing career and technology education efforts; and providing college and career readiness opportunities. 

State aid remains the lion’s share (82 percent) of total general fund revenue and would grow from $722 million to $749 million, a 3 percent increase. Local revenue also grew, from $21 million to $31 million. 

Employee compensation would rise to $337 million from $321 million the year before. This is due to an increase in special education, English Language Learner, occupational education, curriculum development and supervision, and social work service positions. These content areas have been noted as an area of need for the district. 

In addition, positions for building-based substitutes, grade 7-12 teachers, paraprofessionals, and civil service and technology positions are planned to grow in this budget.

The district’s fund balance will be used to cover a budget deficit of $8 million. Alicea says that value actually compares favorably among large school districts, including Buffalo, New York City, Syracuse, Yonkers, Albany, Mount Vernon and Utica.

“Again, I want to complement the district because I have done some research on the other Big 5 districts and RCSD, right now, is using the lowest amount of money from the fund balance to balance the budget,” Alicea said. 

“I’m going to support $8 million being used out of this year’s fund balance. I want to recognize there is a lot of transition happening, and so I do think those expenditures are being driven by some of the transition,” said Beatriz LeBron, board vice president.

The board is scheduled to vote on the budget at its May 7 meeting, with a City Council vote to follow in June.

In his presentation, Alicea also noted the district’s long-term decline in enrollment. According to data from the Department of Education, since 1998, total enrollment in the district has fallen from 36,966 to 20,718 students for RCSD.

End of the EPO

The decision to end the East EPO in June 2025 rather than extend it three more years exposed a sharp division among members, some of whom expressed their own conflict when casting their vote. 

Commissioner Amy Maloy was obviously emotional when discussing the progress in literacy and social emotional needs her own daughter had made at East.

“Culture is contagious. I respect the East model and I value our relationship with the University of Rochester. I would never want to say anything up here that would harm that relationship for the future,” Maloy said in explaining her vote. 

“Tonight, I will not be voting in favor of (continuing the EPO) because I think we have the ability to move this back under our supervision,” she continued. “I made this decision with the understanding that we are going to honor and continue the model.” 

East’s partnership with UR was established in 2015 and given a five-year extension until June 2025. It is managed through the university’s Warner School of Education. The state Education Department approved the EPO after East was placed in receivership due to poor academic performance. 

Marlene Blocker presented East Upper school’s Susan B. Anthony award to Camille Varela for her outstanding academic achievement and work outside the school.

In its eight years under the EPO, East has made big strides, going from graduation rates under 40 percent with the 2011 cohort to 78 percent as of August 2023, compared with 86 percent statewide and RCSD’s 67 percent average. Scores on state testing for Math and English Language Arts also rose during that time period. East Upper school is slated to exit receivership, a designation given to low-performing schools by New York and the original task for the EPO, at the end of this school year. 

An online petition circulated by EPO supporters urged the district’s board members to “maintain the stability and intentional improvement that the EPO has provided.” In addition to the overall higher graduation rate, it cited other measures of improved student performance: 

■ a decrease in the dropout rate from 41 percent to 12 percent;
■ a jump in advanced Regents diplomas from 1 percent to 12 percent;
■ an increase from 25 percent to 74 percent in the four-year graduation rate for students with disabilities; and
■ an increase from 16 percent to 68 percent in the four-year graduation rate for English Learners.

Ending the EPO would fold East fully under the control of the RCSD superintendent and school board. The leadership team, which included a separate superintendent and was responsible for budgeting, all school policies, and more, would likely disappear. 

Proponents of the EPO credit the progress to the school’s partnership with UR, which was responsible for creating its own curriculum, expanding services and schedules, and securing community organization and outside funding support. Its autonomy and separation from decisions made by a district in flux made it more attractive to those organizations and steadied student outcomes, supporters say. 

“An extension of the existing EPO is the only acceptable option and would continue to advance the foundation of work and progress in key areas such as teacher leadership and development, and students’ academic success and enrichment, as well as would allow for the thoughtful and intentional planning needed to properly reintegrate East fully into the Rochester City School District at the appropriate time,” a statement from UR released prior to the vote read. 

Critics of the arrangement levied their own concerns, many connected to control or cost. Peluso, for example, expressed previously that the structure required a negotiation with East and made it difficult to act quickly in matters of student placement or budget. 

When it came to the budget, East’s offerings were more costly than other schools. In the 2022-23 school year, East Lower and Upper had average funding of $49,700 and $38,500 per student, respectively, higher than the RCSD average of about $29,000. 

Under the EPO UR does not provide monetary support but instead in-kind donations of labor and expertise. Although there had been previous opportunities to inquire into the operations of the school, Commissioner Isaiah Santiago, who voted to end the EPO, asked for clarification of this fact during this week’s meeting. 

“All of these people who are concerned about what is going on with the EPO and the (budget), I’d love for them to articulate how many times they have come to East and what they are aware of has taken place there,” Blocker said in her closing statements. 

When explaining his vote, Santiago, who was elected to the position at 19, also suggested a group of interested East stakeholders should meet and provide input for a transition through the Community and Intergovernmental Relations Committee, a committee he heads.

Since that meeting, Santiago has taken to social media to defend his vote, stating on Facebook: “The truth is U of R failed at their job which was to pull the school out of receivership. When asked to help with the cost they refused to invest a dime. The programs are great but where are the outcomes?”

Under the structure of an EPO, UR is not required to invest money and the university’s original proposal, which was approved unanimously by the board at the time, included no mention of monetary investment.

Although they gave credit to the school’s hard work and successes, board president Cynthia Elliott and vice president LeBron were both longstanding critics of the EPO who also voted to end the agreement. 

“I do want to point out that there were a number of programs for me that I already knew existed at East, including the culinary arts program and the optics program. Those are programs that will continue to exist,” LeBron said. “I want to be clear because I think some of the PR campaigns that UR themselves sort of pumped out gave the impression to this community that these programs and resources didn’t exist before at East.” 

Although she voted not to extend the EPO, LeBron said she supported maintaining some level of autonomy at the school. 

Commissioners Camille Simmons, James Patterson, and Jacqueline Griffin voted against ending the EPO. They voiced concerns about the other challenges facing the district—a reconfiguration plan and Peluso’s departure among them—and the risk of impeding East’s progress. 

“The fiscal responsibility that comes with (the EPO) is a lot, but the collateral for our children for me is even more,” said Simmons. “I would have liked to have seen this partnership continue for the three years and then we would bring it back in because I do not believe we are in a place of transition.” 

UR released a statement after the decision, expressing its intent to work closely with RSCD leadership. 

“While University leaders strongly advocated for an extension of the EPO beyond June 2025 in order to maintain the same level of intentionality in a transition as in the formation of the EPO, we accept the decision to fully reintegrate East back into the RCSD educational system and conclude our EPO partnership a year and a half from now,” the statement said. “Importantly, we will work with RCSD leaders during this time to create a transition plan that respects the East community of students, parents and families who have committed to the EPO model, as well as our outstanding administrators, teachers, and staff.” 

Before the vote was concluded, Blocker reiterated she would work to carry out a smooth transition for the good of the school. She also stated her disappointment with the decision. 

“The intention of the EPO was never for equality or equity. We were seeking justice for our kids, the same justice everyone on this board and in this community should be seeking for every single child in Rochester. Justice only happens when the inequities that are going on are addressed and the systemic barriers are removed,” Blocker said. “Having the autonomy at East and having the governance outside the RCSD has truly enabled us to overcome barriers from RCSD turbulence, continuous turnover, and numerous failed reforms.” 

She shared her passion for education and the need to put children first. 

“While I support and respect everything that each individual has said, I just want to close by saying: I pray, after giving eight and a half years of my life, bringing my son to East to be a graduate and to be a part of it, I pray that the RCSD ripples that impeded progress before the EPO took over do not suddenly surface (as) huge waves that crash the positive course that we have taken and UR has helped charter. 

“I appreciate the East staff and families for always putting kids first,” she added. “I appreciate all the in-kind things UR has done by putting kids first. And I 100 percent believe that everyone on this board and Superintendent Peluso will put kids first and that we will work together. This is not about win or lose, this is about win-win for kid and we can’t forget the kids in this.”

While the transition back to full RSCD control will take place between now and June 2025, plans for that development have not been publicly shared. UR, Blocker and Peluso said they have discussed the possibility. Peluso previously said he was waiting for the board’s decision before carrying on in earnest.

“I think there is a way, through a collective agreement with (a memorandum of agreement) to honor the work that is in place over several years. To say that we’re not going to change this, this and this,” he said at the time.

Whether Peluso will oversee the creation of that plan before leaving RCSD at the end of June or his successor will is yet to be seen.

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

9 thoughts on “Upheaval in the city schools

  1. This is one of those occasions where the citizens who vote for school commissioners to act on our behalf need complete transparency. Until now, all we’ve gotten from RTA President Urbanski is a vague pronouncement that the current Superintendent is leaving because a couple of school commissioners are making it impossible for him to continue. We need to know who they are and what the issues are. This is not a care of the ubiquitous excuse of “personnel issues” that will not pass the smell test. There isn’t sufficient transparency, and we continue to have a revolving door of Superintendents. I’d like to know why. As a highly taxed city resident, I expect the commissioners to act on my behalf and allow a highly competent and experienced superintendent to do his/her job unimpeded by potentially overreaching elected officials with personal or political agendas. Board members who continuously interrupt the smooth operation of the school district. Uninterrupted tenure of a quality superintendent will, in turn, lead to high-performing students. It’s time to term-limit commissioner positions and for the Democratic Party leadership to recruit and develop competent and experienced candidates to run for school board.
    On the issue of the UR-East High contract, it’s my understanding that the founding principal was to ensure that the programs and process were to be captured and formalized so that at the end of the contract, the program could be duplicated in other schools. It was never intended to be an ongoing effort. Additionally, the amount of money the UR receives from taxpayers for this program is unsustainable. With all of UR’s fundraising and grant writing expertise, it should provide its services at no cost to taxpayers as a community service.

    • Ever consider that the majority of commissioners are doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Those two that you feel are the problem may in fact be the ones who are trying to change things for the better. The majority of the board apparently want to continue the “doing things the same way expecting different results”. As for the Politician sticking their noses into the education system….you got to be kidding, right. They have have a full plate. Besides, the mayoral take-over has been tried in other urban school districts and many have been reverted back to elected boards. We need a board consisting of a representative from all of our institutions of higher learning. They are THEE experts in education. If you think an elected board is not doing the job, a political “team” and in your opinion would do better……have you tuned into the daily political mess these days? And as far as a Democrat controlled board…I don’t know if you have noticed but Rochester is and has been dominated by the Dems for years.

      • Perhaps my understanding of the school board’s primary role may not be completely accurate. I am trying to get a copy of the enabling legislation that allows the “big five” to have the board act in lieu of a direct vote on school budgets. However, I assume that the board’s primary responsibility is to review and approve the budget the superintendent and their staff prepared. The second significant responsibility is hiring and supervising the superintendent, which doesn’t mean micro-managing them. Policy and curriculum should only be addressed given the programs proposed in the budget. From my admittedly biased perspective, some board members have personal political agendas that are outside the preview of ensuring that RCSD operates within state-mandated guidelines. I’m also not convinced that someone with children in the school district is a sufficient reason to serve on the board. My bias is that the board needs people who can objectively evaluate the identified academic outcomes that a budget of over a billion dollars will achieve. I’ve long ago accepted that the RTA and Dr. Urbanski have a role in advocating for their members and that his members do not have total control of student outcomes. That said, the community and parents are responsible for stepping up and ensuring that students get the support they need to succeed. More crucial is that there is a strong racial component that undergirds many of the challenges that the community and students need transparency of the “leaders” who want change to the way students are educated. One of those agendas is the desire that most city students attend charter schools rather than continue in the city schools. Then there is the almost insurmountable challenge of the significant population of students with special needs and non-English speaking students. So far, no board member has demonstrated consistent and transparent leadership, articulating a vision for RSCD that the community can get behind.

  2. It is so incredibly difficult to respond to this news. The RCSD/RCSB will NEVER change. The current leadership will continue to fail and as a result fail urban youth. How the leadership can get up in the morning a look in the mirror and think they are serving the urban educational system is mind blowing. Thumbing their collective nose at the U of R and taking over, thinking they will do better or even maintain the current educational track is a psychological issue. They need help. While East High was gaining the rest of the system declined even further. What does that tell you!? I don’t care if it takes a boat load of money,….fix the damn system!!

  3. R C S D = Rochester City School DEAFNESS!
    I and many others have tried to speak at school board meetings, contact, school officials, speak to teachers, the teachers union, the press, etc, etc, for years and years. As I see it, DEAFNESS prevails, and there seems to be no hope of getting through to anyone in the school district…
    Years and years have gone by. Zillions and zillions of dollars have been spent. Books and articles have been written. Many students have struggled and some have failed.
    You would think that of all our institutions, our schools would be the most open to IDEAS.
    But let me again, suggest our Rochester schools set up web pages with helpful ideas.
    (I set up my own “messy” page of ideas at: http://www.SavingSchools.org ) Thanks for the story.

      “Man is a creature who lives not upon bread alone, by principally by CATCHWORDS”
      by Robert Louis Stevenson. Let me suggest that school discussions are hampered by endlessly confusing ramblings. Why not start with some catchwords, to stay focused.
      As Einstein put it, “Everything should be made as simple, as possible, but not simpler.”
      I also suggest the use of fun media presentations. For example, try YouTube videos, like, “Alternative Math” (8min.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zh3Yz3PiXZw&t=164s
      (This funny film pokes fun at school reasoning, and it might wake some people up)
      Lets stop defending what does not work, and turn to what does work!
      http://www.SavingSchools.org thanks much for this great report

  4. Rochester City School District Board of Education: The Leadership Crisis Deepens

    If you don’t feel like reading the article, there’s a feature that allows you to listen to it. Click
    on the link below. When the article comes up, to listen, click on this symbol ⧁ above the title.


    An Open Letter to Young Blood (general ideas and good
    intentions) — Learning how to “Play” the Political Game

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    • Read it all. While not in 100% agreement, you have done your “homework”. That said, I find myself agreeing for the most part. There is no, none, zero leadership. There is no, none, zero creativity when it comes to TEACHING/EDUCATING. I have designed a full color brochure (at my personal expense) and mailed it out to over 170 individuals, (a week ago) including the RCSB and the Beacon. Would like to send one to you. PO Box? Or some other delivery method. Would appreciate your review. I have been advocating for the RCSD for 16 years. I am a graduate of the old (1965) Edison Technical and Industrial High School. That educational journey was the foundational item toward a satisfying professional career. I lived next to East High and took two busses to and back. Never a day absent, never a day late. It was a motivating and technical experience of a lifetime. (since destroyed) Semper Fi.

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