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Rochester's school district and the push for change 

Is it time to change the way the Rochester school district is governed? Is it time to have it run by something other than an elected school board that hires and supervises a superintendent?

A fairly formidable group of people and organizations – including Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren – says it is. Roc the Future, whose members include groups like the Children’s Agenda as well as broader organizations like Action for a Better Community and the United Way, is pushing for “systematic and transformational change” – including change in the governance of the district.

“The system is broken,” Roc the Future said in a letter to state education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, “and must be replaced.”

“Historically,” the letter says, “there is no evidence that RCSD’s governance has enabled – or can enable – the development and implementation of meaningful change strategies.”

And in a lengthy interview with CITY last week, Mayor Warren made it clear that she agrees.

Adding strength to their argument: Late last week, Elia told the RCSD that its improvement plan, which she had ordered, isn’t good enough. The district had developed the plan in response to the scathing report issued by state-appointed Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino. Among other problems, Elia said, the plan doesn’t include a coherent vision, contains timelines that are either unrealistic or “appear aspirational,” and lacks accountability measures.

Elia told the district to revise its plan and resubmit it.

The current board has been the object of intense criticism lately, but Roc the Future and the mayor say the problem isn’t a particular board. It’s the system of governance itself.

We’ve been through the discussion of “governance” before, of course. Mayor Bob Duffy pushed for mayoral control of the district in 2010, which led to months of community division. The school board, the teachers union, and many activists opposed the change, and it went nowhere in the state legislature.

Although the mayor and Roc the Future leaders say they have no concrete new structure in mind, I'm not aware of many options besides some form of mayoral control. The state could put a special monitor in charge of the district, but that would be temporary. Control would revert back to the school board. And ROC the Future and the mayor seem convinced that governance by a school board can't bring about the change we need.

The state could put a control board in charge of the district, but that, too, would be temporary.

We could have some form of "partnership" between the district and city government, but somebody has to be in charge.

So this community has a big decision ahead of it: Do we believe that a school board is the best way to run Rochester’s school district? If the board receives training in governing – governing despite important differences of opinion – if it hires the right superintendent, and if the superintendent and other key administrators do a good job managing the district, can it do the job?


That’s not the only decision the community faces, though. Perhaps more important is whether all of the larger community – city and suburbs, government, business, non-profits, and private citizens – is willing to accept responsibility for its role in this. The school district did not cause many of the problems that stand in the way of children getting a good education. It will take the entire community to address those problems.

The concentration of poverty in several Rochester neighborhoods is one of those problems. That is not opinion; that is fact. And if the community doesn’t have the will to address the concentrated poverty in a meaningful way, it will have a choice: continue to see generations of children leave school with little hope of a decent future or pay for the education and support the children need.

One way to reduce the concentration of poverty in public schools is desegregation, of course: metro schools or some other way to stop forcing poor children to go to majority-poor schools. But that’s not going to happen. Not in the lifetime of anybody living in this community right now.

It is possible to create a district that provides an excellent education for a high-poverty population. Changes in curriculum, better training for teachers and administrators... all of that would be essential. But so would strong support services for the children and their families, to counteract the damage of concentrated poverty.

That is not the school district’s job. It is the community’s job – and it won’t be cheap. City government can’t afford to pay the cost. And the governor of the State of New York has already said that the state won’t pay.

So what’s our plan?

It’s good that so many organizations have said they want to be involved in providing, in their words, “a world class education” for Rochester’s children. But changing the way the school district is governed – changing the title of the person or persons in charge – would be just one step. If the community isn’t ready to share the burden and the responsibility for the non-education challenges, nothing will change.

Whether the school board stays in charge, or we have some form of mayoral control, or we create some form of city-school board partnership, nothing at all will change.

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