It's easy to become jaded while observing local politics, especially as it pertains to education. Contrary to some folks' naïve notions, "education is a political process," as city school board member Bolgen Vargas said at the board's June 19 meeting.
Indeed, politics was on everyone's mind that night. The board had convened to pick a replacement for former Commissioner of Schools Joanne Giuffrida, who'd resigned her post to take a high-level position in the district's administration in May. State law dictates that the replacement live in the city and be enrolled in the same party as the departing member --- in this case, the Democratic Party; all the commissioners are Dems.
This is a particularly politically charged time to choose a replacement, with four seats on the board up for grabs in this fall's election. Some current board members, such as vice president Rob Brown, interpreted the law to mean the replacement should reflect the will of the party. At the Dems' May convention, four candidates got the party's endorsement: current board president Shirley Thompson, Malik Evans, David Perez, and former board member Willa Powell.
Board member Darryl Porter, on the other hand, thought a relative outsider --- Woody Hammond --- would be a more appropriate choice to fill the seat until the end of the year. Hammond is a veteran administrator in the district, but he's also a neophyte candidate for school board this year. He failed to get the party's nod, but plans to force a primary this September.
Still others, mostly folks either not on the school board or folks on the Democrat and Chronicle's editorial board, thought a parent untainted by the political process would be a wise choice. "The [school] board needs a fresh perspective, one free of the political machinations that seem to infect every approach, every decision made," the D&C editorialized the morning of the meeting. The editorial encouraged parents to attend the meeting en masse and demand to be heard.
Of the tens of thousands of parents with kids in the district, less than 10 showed up to speak. Two speakers were, like Hammond, Dems running for the board who failed to get the party's endorsement. Another was Powell.
Powell spoke mostly to counter a previous speaker's dubious allegation that the board was only interested in appointing her because she's a white woman. She expressed hope that if the board chose her, it would do so based on her qualifications, not her race and gender.
In his long-winded way, Vargas got around to nominating Powell. Porter and Commissioner Jim Bowers suggested several others, including Hammond and Jim Greco, a bombastic board critic who's among those Dems seeking to force a primary.
Hammond was rejected by a 4-2 vote and Powell subsequently selected by the same margin.
That's when my jadedness reached its peak.
"One of the things that anyone that's ever worked with me knows is that I have no sense of humor," she said. "Tomorrow we'll joke about all this, but today I will say 'Thanks for nothing,' because it has been difficult to watch this process."
"I know that the position of the Democratic Party, through the convention, is part of the decision-making process that brought me here to the floor today, and I'm ready to get down to work," she said. "But when I say 'Thanks for nothing,' I mean that. I don't want my time wasted."
And with that, Powell ascended the dais, her face an expressionless mask, and began serving as one of the seven public officials responsible for overseeing education in the morass of poverty, political in-fighting, and failure that is Rochester's school district.
Unlike Powell, I do have a sense of humor. But even I couldn't joke about this the next day.