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The following guest commentary is by members of the Education Committee of Citizen Action: Mercedes Phelan, Erin Egloff, John Boutet, Mary Callahan, and Pia Moller. Mary Anna Towler's Urban Journal returns next week.

Rochester Superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams will retire at the end of January 2019. The Board of Education is charged with finding her replacement, and we do not yet know what the search process will look like.

At the November 1 Board of Education special meeting, board President Van White discussed a proposal for a search process that would directly involve community members. Under the proposal, each of the seven board members would appoint two community members to an advisory search committee. This committee would review responses to the call for applicants and make recommendations to the board.

The committee would solicit comments and recommendations from the community regarding the qualities desired in the superintendent; prepare a recommendation of the desired attributes and characteristics for consideration by the board; screen all nominations and applications based on the attributes and characteristics identified; and submit to the board the names of three to five candidates – in unranked, alphabetical order – who best embody the preferred attributes and characteristics.

Importantly, the community advisory committee would maintain strict confidentiality during all points of this process.

The school board discussed the proposal but hasn't yet adopted it. We urge the board to adopt the proposal immediately and announce the appointees publicly by or on January 1, 2019. The board is diverse in personal and professional background as well as age, race, and ethnicity, and can put together a diverse committee consisting of current RCSD parents, people active in community-based organizations working on education issues in Rochester, and community members who have demonstrated a commitment to public K-12 education.

The Rochester school district has seen high turnover in leadership. That’s common for urban districts, but Rochester has seen more turnover than most, with five superintendents in 10 years (including several interim appointments). This turnover is problematic. That's not because stability in top leadership in itself ensures better educational outcomes, but because it imposes a burden on central staff, teachers, and parents, who are presented every couple of years a new vision, a new leadership style, yet another set of approaches, values, and priorities.

An incoming superintendent has to spend time studying the district, building relationships, and having conversations with stakeholders before formulating a plan of action. No superintendent can make huge headway on a long-term vision in two or three years. High turnover arguably also hampers a strong working relationship between the superintendent and the Board of Education. Finally, high turnover in leadership undermines confidence in the district among parents and other community members.

Many parents and community members desperately want an authentic partnership with the district. Inviting 14 community members into the search process is one way for the board to demonstrate its interest in that partnership.

In the district’s 2016 search for a superintendent, community members were invited to give input via an online survey. Fewer than 200 surveys were submitted, and the responses, as board President White noted at the time, didn’t tell the board anything it didn’t already know about what the community wanted.

White’s remarks weren’t flippant: a survey that uses predetermined choices can’t produce much new insight. An input survey isn’t a vehicle for community power. But adding 14 community members to the process every step of the way – that’s community power. Let the community take co-ownership of the process. Let it be a real partnership this time.


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