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Super-mayor? 

If you aren't one already, imagine being the parent of a child attending one of Rochester's troubled inner-city schools. You've just sent your kid off to class in a school district rocked by financial crises, dismal test scores, an astonishingly high drop-out rate, the controversial departure of its superintendent, and a political maelstrom that's developed in the wake of all these issues. Exhausted, you turn on the TV to find the mayor announcing he's taking over control of the school board and assuming new powers to oversee the district's top management.

            "Today we are making history," the mayor announces. "This reform will give the school system the one thing it fundamentally needs, accountability. We will no longer have to tolerate an incapable bureaucracy which does not respond to the needs of the students. We are replacing it with a governance structure that will give us the opportunity to fix our broken schools, provide our children with the tools they need to succeed in society, and finally give parents the ability to voice their opinions and concerns."

            Feel relieved? You may someday soon.

            The preceding announcement was actually made by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg last June, after legislation giving him sweeping new powers within that city's education hierarchy was signed into law by Governor George Pataki.

            Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson has indicated he's interested in having similar powers. And in the wake of the board's controversial severance agreement with former superintendent Clifford Janey, the mayor's quest for control is gaining momentum.

The outcry over the terms of Janey's severance deal "makes an easier case" for mayoral control, Johnson says.

            Of course, Johnson himself has been the most vocal critic of Janey's deal. On August 27, he called on city taxpayers to sue the school board and remove the majority of its members. If he can't find a citizen willing to petition the state Department of Education to remove the board members, he said, "I will be that citizen."

            Given his personal stake in any decision that gives the mayor more control of the district, Johnson acknowledges, "It would be convenient for someone to describe it as a power grab.

            "But," he adds, "I think it's frustration."

            Like Bloomberg, Johnson is frustrated by what he perceives as the district's lack of accountability, particularly in budgetary and other financial matters. "They give out as little information as they deem necessary in order to comply, and it's not accurate, it's not sufficient, and it's never on time," he says.

            Johnson is still studying models in other cities where the municipal government has control over the school district. But he says, "the situation I'll be advancing is probably one where the superintendent will be a direct appointee of the mayor --- like the police chief, subject to the approval of City Council."

            Those holding key positions in the superintendent's administration, such as finance directors and union negotiators, would be appointed by the new superintendent but ultimately answerable to the mayor. School board members could also be appointed and answerable to the mayor and council under such a restructuring.

School Board President Joanne Giuffrida is open to exploring the idea.

            There seem to be "inherent flaws" in the current structure, she says. "The board is responsible for making spending decisions, but the board doesn't have the authority to raise the money." Unlike suburban school districts, the city's district cannot raise taxes. It's dependant upon the city, state, and federal governments for funding.

            "I think the school district should be an integrated part of city government," says board member Rob Brown. "There's no question in my mind that if the mayor and city council were responsible for the schools, we would have --- for the first time --- a forum to decide our community priorities for funding and other things."

            In Giuffrida's opinion, however, financing is only half of the accountability coin. "I'm not sure the electoral system has produced people who are best qualified to oversee the district," she says. "If you have seven separate members who don't understand or agree on how to run an organization, it breaks down from there."

            "I'm the president of the board, but I'm not in charge of the board," she adds, noting that her role is limited to coordinating some general tasks and acting as spokesperson. "No one's in charge."

            Voters "should be asking what expertise people bring to the board," Giuffrida says, "what skills they need to help run a half-a-billion-dollar organization."

            Both Giuffrida and Johnson also say there are simply too few voters choosing those members.

            School board members "view themselves as being a democratically elected body, but think about it," Johnson says. "The turnout is so sparse, you can get elected to the school board with less than 10 percent of the vote. It's not like they have an overwhelming mandate."

            "If you assume voter turnout is higher in a mayoral race, and the mayor appoints the school board, you at least have some link to a larger voter base than in a school board election," Giuffrida says.

            Giuffrida is also studying models where municipal governments have some control over their school districts. Her chief concern with mayoral control is that such a system "concentrates power in one person." While she has confidence in Johnson's ability to govern, she's wary of making a decision to restructure the district's bureaucracy based solely on the current mayor's skills. "You need to make these changes around positions in the system, not around people," she says.

            Brown has examined New York City's restructured school system, where Bloomberg now has the power to appoint the majority of school board members and a schools chancellor to oversee their decisions. Brown refers to New York's Board of Education as a "shock-absorber board," and says he'd rather do away with Rochester's school board altogether and cede authority to the mayor and council.

            In Brown's opinion, such a system would end the political bickering that damages the district. If the mayor and city council are "in a position where they have to own the district in terms of its successes and failures," he says, "they're much more likely to be supportive and much more likely to refrain from gratuitous slaps at the district, because there's no political future in it."

            That, at least, promises some relief. But it's still early in the process. Any significant change to the system would have to be approved by state legislators and the governor. And Johnson has yet to propose any specific reforms.

            The first step, Johnson says, is to have "a community conversation" about the need for reform. "We need the community engaged in this discussion, but first they have to understand why change is necessary," he says.

            Stay tuned.

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