During her successful campaign for a seat on the Rochester School Board last fall, Cynthia Elliott promised to shake things up. She said the board has been too passive, and she supported mayoral candidate Wade Norwood, who wanted to have the superintendent report to the mayor instead of the School Board.
At the board's organizational meeting last week, Elliott wasted no time making her mark. She cast the lone vote against electing Domingo Garcia the new president, saying she wasn't familiar enough with his record on the board. Considering that Elliott ran unsuccessfully against Garcia a year ago, it appeared that that rivalry was continuing.
If that's the case, the timing isn't good. With a new president, two new board members, and a vacancy yet to be filled, the board needs to come together quickly to guide several extremely important programs. The Children's Zone is moving from concept into development, and while it's an ambitious project, thousands of children and their families could benefit from it. Even more time-sensitive is the district's plan to modernize many of its buildings. Hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid could be lost if the district doesn't get its application into Albany by June. Before then, it must firm up the plan and get the community behind it.
Garcia says he expected Elliott's "no" vote and wasn't offended by it. Elliott says her concerns were based on her experience with Garcia during the 2004 Democratic primary, when she was the party's nominee and Domingo successfully challenged her. "Why couldn't he have gotten behind me as the nominated candidate?" she says. "My concern was more about his ethics."
"I don't really know what he has done on the board to deserve the position," she says. "I have not worked with him. I had nothing to base a 'yes' vote on. And my earlier experience with him left me suspicious."
Elliott, who will likely be one of the School Board's bolder members, isn't afraid to speak up or seek greater clarity. On Monday, in a meeting between the board and City Council, she came out against Superintendent Manuel Rivera directing the Children's Zone.
"I think the school district needs to stay in the business of education and not go into the business of human services," she said. "I think the city is in a better position to lead the Children's Zone. We don't seem to have the intimate relationships with the agencies in the community to be successful."
Elliott also says her first few meetings with the board have been just as she expected: inefficient. At last week's meeting, when the board began to go through the evening's agenda, Elliott asked for more information on several items she was expected to vote on. She couldn't make an intelligent decision, she said, since she had not seen enough supportive documentation, and what she did receive didn't get to her in a timely manner.
Garcia says he understands Elliott's concerns, since it was her first meeting and she was entering into some of the board's business mid-stream.
But Elliott says she's not the only person who's unhappy: much of the public feels disconnected from the district, she says, because the district doesn't do a good job communicating. And City Council member Adam McFadden, who attended last week's board meeting, says Elliott was asking the right questions.
"She has a valid point," he said later. "I don't know how they go through all the information that they have to go through with due diligence to cast their votes." The board, he said, has only one staff person assisting them. City Council has a six or seven-member staff, "and then each Council member has an aide," said McFadden. "There's no other way to read through all this information. I think the comments she made were very timely."
Elliott's aggressiveness this early on, however, may raise a question: will it result in a stronger board, or a weaker, fractured one?
Malik Evans, who was elected vice president at last week's board meeting, says he recognizes the importance of a smooth transition. "We're all entitled to our opinions," he said, "but we have to find common ground, too, or nothing will get done."
"I'm not concerned about Cynthia's comments," he said. "I think she understands that we have to work together. The bottom line for every new member is learning to count to four. It takes four votes to get anything done on the board. You can't just sit back and criticize. You have to learn how to build consensus to be effective."