Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Charlotte's closing may be a condemnation of school choice

Posted By on Wed, Dec 3, 2014 at 12:10 PM

RCSD Superintendent Bolgen Vargas. - FILE PHOTO
  • RCSD Superintendent Bolgen Vargas.
Charlotte High School, which just underwent a multimillion-dollar makeover as part of the district’s massive modernization project, should be revered at least as much as Charlotte’s famous lighthouse. And it was a generation or two ago, but not anymore.

Today, the school is arguably a better example of the death of neighborhood schools.

That was apparent at a sparsely attended public meeting held at the school last night. Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas met with parents and residents to discuss his recent recommendation to close the low-performing school in two years.

Most of the attendees' comments were interchangeable with comments made at similar meetings that the district has held over the years. There are concerns about low attendance, students hanging out in the neighborhood and getting into fights, and a general malaise toward the school.

And most of the students enrolled at Charlotte are not from the area, which is often characteristic of urban schools that fall on hard times. The students are bused in from all over the city, since Rochester’s high schools are student choice-driven rather than neighborhood schools.

The contrast between the two enrollment policies and the impact on neighborhoods were on stark display last night. Many schools that once were pillars of neighborhoods have been destabilized through myriad state and district policies promoting choice to drive higher academic achievement. 

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Penfield board poised to approve fracking ban

Posted By on Wed, Dec 3, 2014 at 10:51 AM

By the end of the month, Penfield could be the fifth Monroe County community to ban fracking. And the second with an all-Republican town board to do so.

The Town Board is holding a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. today on a law that would prohibit natural gas and petroleum extraction within Penfield. Barring any major issues emerging during tonight's hearing, the board should adopt the ban at its December 17 meeting, Supervisor Tony LaFountain says.

And the law would also prohibit the disposal of gas and petroleum extraction wastes within the town, including disposing waste water in injection wells and spreading well brine on Penfield's roads. 

Rochester-area anti-fracking activists have pushed for the local bans to symbolize opposition to the natural gas extraction technique and to protect local communities should drillers take an interest in Monroe County. Brighton, Mendon, Perinton, and Rush have bans similar to the one proposed in Penfield, while the City of Rochester has a moratorium.

Penfield has had a moratorium on oil and gas drilling for about two years. During that time, the town examined ban ordinances from different communities and considered perspectives on both sides of the issue, LaFountain says. And while extraction companies say that they aren't interested in drilling in Monroe County, LaFountain says, that doesn't meant they won't be interested at some point in the future. 

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Does anyone hold the SED and the Regents accountable?

Posted By on Tue, Dec 2, 2014 at 1:33 PM

It’s hard to say what the future holds for Ted Morris, the 22-year-old former lead applicant for the Greater Works Charter School. Morris went from wunderkind to someone people began eyeing with suspicion in the span of a day or two after it turned out he had invented much of his educational background and work experience. Morris resigned from the school, and then the school's application was rescinded. 

Maybe Morris will learn from the experience and move on. Labeling him a con and a grifter seems a little harsh. There’s no way to excuse what he did, but it shouldn't prevent him from starting over. 

The New York State Education Department and the Board of Regents deserve less sympathy. How many of us meet 22-year-olds with more than seven years of significant professional experience at virtually anything, much less possessing multiple higher ed degrees? And yet, Morris's background didn’t seem to raise any questions at either of the agencies responsible for approving charter school applications.

Worse, when Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch was questioned about Morris and Greater Works, she didn’t hesitate to deflect blame for the oversight. According to some media accounts, Tisch said that the Regents act on the SED’s recommendations.

Sorry, but that was so not the right response.

It left the public wondering: what exactly did the SED and the Regents review, and what did they approve? What other charters have been approved without appropriate scrutiny? And how much in public and private funds are these charters receiving?

Both SED Commissioner John King and Chancellor Tisch are outspoken supporters of charter schools. And they’ve strongly supported professional evaluations for teachers and principals that emphasize greater professional accountability for student performance.

But where’s the accountability in Albany? Remember the less-than-stellar roll out of Common Core?

All things being equal, letting Morris alone take the fall for this mess seems almost as incredible as some of his misrepresentations. He’s not the only one who should be held accountable.

Democrat and Chronicle newsroom changes begin, with some losses

Posted By on Tue, Dec 2, 2014 at 11:47 AM

The Democrat and Chronicle's new newsroom is taking shape, but there have been casualties.

Executive Editor Karen Magnuson laid out some of the changes in a column on Sunday. She listed some new members of the "leadership team," and said that most of the company's journalists have been given new roles, which will start this month.But she also mentioned that five newsroom workers weren't offered jobs; in other words, they were laid off.

Those employees are said to include copy editors and two reporters.

Magnuson also noted that the company is advertising to fill positions, including a couple of editor jobs and a content coach — a position that the company hasn't publicly defined.

The Newspaper Guild of Rochester provided this statement in response to the changes and Magnuson's column:

"This reorganization has been extremely difficult for newsroom employees, and was done in a way that caused far more stress than was necessary. In the end, five of our co-workers were laid off. Perhaps twice that number have chosen to leave since this reorganization was announced. Guild members deeply regret the departure of all of these people, most of whom had spent the bulk of their working lives at this company. The loss of so many experienced journalists will be felt in the community."
In a column published at the end of October, Magnuson billed the reorganization as a way to improve the D&C's digital content while continuing to produce a print product that's valuable to readers. She reiterated those goals in Sunday's piece. Similar restructurings have been in the works at Gannett papers across the country.

In her previous column, Magnuson also pledged that the newsroom "will be leaner with fewer layers of managers but the number of reporters and photographers will remain the same."

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Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

Posted By on Tue, Dec 2, 2014 at 9:28 AM

A scholarship fund has been established in honor of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, a Rochester native and Oscar-winning actor. The Philip Seymour Hoffman Scholarship Fund will support scholarships for Geva Theatre Center’s training programs.

According to a press release, the goal is to raise $25,000 to provide two annual scholarships for Geva’s Summer Academy Program, which is for youth ages 12 to 18.

“Phil’s interest in theatre began when he saw a play at Geva,” Hoffman’s mother, Marilyn O’Connor, said. “He called it magic and it changed his perspective on life. That is what good theatre does. That is what Geva does.”

Hoffman earned praise for his originality and versatility as an actor. He never seemed to struggle to find work, and earned an Oscar in 2005 for playing author Truman Capote.

Hoffman died earlier this year of acute mixed drug intoxication. He was 46.

Monday, December 1, 2014

After Ferguson, calls for unity

Posted By on Mon, Dec 1, 2014 at 11:11 AM

Community activists rallied at the Liberty Pole on Sunday. Protests have been taking place nationwide after the August shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Missouri by a white police officer. - PHOTO BY CHRISTINE CARRIE FIEN
  • Community activists rallied at the Liberty Pole on Sunday. Protests have been taking place nationwide after the August shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Missouri by a white police officer.
Local activist groups and members of the community came together at the Liberty Pole on Sunday to rally and march against police brutality and systemic racism. The event took place in the aftermath of the controversial decision by a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

Protests and other actions have been happening across the country and internationally. Ferguson itself has been in turmoil since the August shooting.

Rochester’s action was peaceful and featured speeches and songs. Names of people of color who died after encounters with the police were read and repeated.

One speaker said that more than speeches and rallies are needed. People must build a community, he said, and come together before incidents like the Michael Brown shooting happen.

“We’re all here together,” he said. “We need to say together like this." 

WEEK AHEAD: Eviction blockade; public hearing on county budget

Posted By on Mon, Dec 1, 2014 at 10:11 AM

George Douglass, Take Back the Land Rochester, and other community members will hold a nonviolent community eviction blockade at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, December 2, to keep Douglass in his home. The blockade will take place at Douglass’s home, 95 Roxborough Road.

Douglass and other community members say that they are willing to risk arrest as an act of civil disobedience to keep George in his home and reform the FHA government policy that incentivizes evictions and foreclosures for banks. BY CHRISTINE CARRIE FIEN

At 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, a County Legislature committee will hold a public hearing on County Executive Maggie Brooks’ 2015 budget proposal.

The $1 billion-plus plan would keep the county tax rate at $8.99 per $1,000 assessed value. But the proposal is not without controversy.

If this budget passes, county would contribute less toward child day care funding than it did in 2014. It would contribute $4.2 million to the programs, which is the amount required by the state. Brooks has said that the contribution is more than the local shares paid by Albany, Onondaga, and Erie counties combined.

But it’s less than the $4.6 million contribution that the county made in 2014. Brooks defends the cut, saying that the county has met its obligation and that it’s time for the state, which requires counties to provide the program, to direct more funding to counties in need.

The budget also contains a plan to outsource visitation supervisor jobs at the county’s foster care and pediatrics visitation center on East Henrietta Road next to Monroe Community Hospital. During committee meetings last month, a group of foster parents urged county officials to reconsider the plan. The children have bonded with the workers, the parents say, who serve as a reassuring presence during difficult visits with biological parents.

The county plans to solicit proposals from outside contractors, and officials say that they want any new arrangement to start by April 1. For now, the nine visitation workers have been offered temporary positions through the end of March.

The committee meeting will be held at the County Office Building, 39 West Main Street. BY JEREMY MOULE

Monday, November 24, 2014

Everything we have on the Ferguson grand jury decision

Posted By and on Mon, Nov 24, 2014 at 5:40 PM

UPDATE: 2 p.m., Tuesday, November 25: 

A screen capture of Mayor Lovely Warren's original Facebook post regarding the Ferguson decision.
  • A screen capture of Mayor Lovely Warren's original Facebook post regarding the Ferguson decision.
Warren responds to criticism of her Facebook post:

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren says that she was not singling out Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in a controversial Facebook she made earlier this week (The post appears to have been taken down as of Wednesday morning.) Warren’s post went up shortly after a grand jury declined to indict Wilson, a white officer, in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

In a lengthy post, Warren says that, “As I was thinking about how to respond, I went back to how the situation started: With a young, unarmed black man and an authority figure who had little regard for this young man’s life.”

The replies to her post range from praise to accusations of race-baiting. Warren says that she was talking about a flawed grand jury process, and not about Wilson.

Rochester has a long history of advocating for social justice, Warren says, and the situation in Ferguson is “a teachable moment.”

“Our legacy has been about embracing those tough issues, talking about them, and doing something about them,” she says. “So I’m hopeful we’ll be able to do that here.”

Asked what she would tell her young daughter about Ferguson, Warren says she’d tell her to make up her own mind, and to stand for what she believes is right, “even if you’re standing by yourself.”

Local press conference on Ferguson decision:

The United Christian Leadership Ministry and Coalition for Police Reform held a press conference Tuesday on the grand jury decision involving the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The press conference took place at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church. - PHOTO BY JOHN SCHLIA
  • The United Christian Leadership Ministry and Coalition for Police Reform held a press conference Tuesday on the grand jury decision involving the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The press conference took place at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church.


A grand jury has decided that Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson should not face any charges for shooting and killing Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.

In a press conference just now, St. Louis prosecuting attorney Robert McCullough said that there is no question that Wilson shot and killed Brown, but that the question was whether he used authorized force or acted in self-defense. He said the grand jury is the only group who heard from all witnesses in the case and reviewed every piece of evidence, and that it found no probable cause to file any charge against Wilson.

Today, at least two local groups will hold events to respond to the decision:
  • The Coalition for Police Reform will hold a press conference at 10:15 a.m. at Downtown Presbyterian Church, 121 North Fitzhugh Street;
  • Another group — it's not clear who — is organizing a demonstration at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Elmwood Avenue entrance to the University of Rochester. Similar actions are planned at the same time at RIT and Nazareth College. 

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Frankel weighing second county exec bid

Posted By on Thu, Nov 20, 2014 at 12:23 PM

A few names have been circulating as potential Democratic county executive candidates for the 2015 election: former Brighton Supervisor Sandra Frankel, former District Attorney Mike Green, and Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy.

Yesterday, Duffy was tapped to serve as the new CEO of the Rochester Business Alliance — a job he'll start in January. If Duffy was ever really in the mix, his new job likely removes him from the discussion.

And during a brief interview this morning, Green said that he's currently focusing on his job as executive deputy commissioner of the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services.

"I have no comment right now on any future plans," he said.

That leaves Frankel, who says that she is considering a run. She says that she doesn't have a timeline for a decision, other than "sooner rather than later."

In 2011, Frankel ran against County Executive Maggie Brooks and received approximately 42.5 percent of the vote, compared to Brooks' approximately 56 percent . (Brooks can't run for re-election in 2015 due to term limits.)

"It's clear to me that county government still struggles under the current administration," Frankel says.

Frankel also says that Greater Rochester has opportunities for a brighter future and that it's time for a change in county leadership. But she says that it's too early to get into specifics on her potential platform. 

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Human toll of school suspensions is devastating

Posted By on Wed, Nov 19, 2014 at 12:44 PM

Should a student be suspended for tugging on a teacher? What’s the likelihood of a student returning to school after a multiple-day out-of-school suspension? Are special-needs students able to make up instruction time lost to suspensions? And how long should it take for school officials to notify parents that their child has been arrested and is sitting in the Monroe County jail?

These are a few of the questions raised by parents and students yesterday at a press conference organized by Metro Justice and several community partners concerning the high suspension rates in the Rochester school district.

Much of the presentation was about a report compiled by Metro Justice’s education committee. The report showed that 88 percent of the 6,373 suspensions in city schools during the 2012-2013 school year were for minor infractions.

But the human toll revealed by the data is devastating. Suspended students and their families are often thrust into a dizzying array of situations that frequently seem inconsistent and disproportionate to the offense — with some ultimately leading to youth arrests.

In some respects, the suspension data is neither new nor shocking. Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said yesterday that he's familiar with efforts to improve school climate going back to 1977.

“This is not a new problem, and it’s getting worse,” he said. 

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