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What do you want in a school superintendent? 

The Rochester school district starts the year with more challenges than is good for it

Urban journal

The Rochester school district starts the year with way more challenges than are good for it.

The biggest, of course, is finding a new superintendent; Manny Rivera will be on the job for only five more months. I don't question his devotion to the district and to Rochester's children, but there are limits to what he can accomplish before he goes to Boston.

And even if we luck out and a new superintendent moves in the day after Rivera leaves, it'll take months for the new person to learn the ropes.

The district also hopes to embark on a major capital program, upgrading most schools, perhaps demolishing a few and expanding others. The plan carries plenty of potential for controversy.

Then there's the issue of diversity. Some African-American leaders complain that the district doesn't hire enough black teachers. And for the past several months, Rivera has been dealing with charges that some employees were denied promotions because of racism.

Rivera and his staff will be dealing with all that while they draft a new budget and hire and train new teachers and administrators. And meantime, the School Board will be looking for Rivera's replacement.

The board's search committee is asking for public input, starting with questionnaires on the qualities needed in a new superintendent. We are to rate a long list of possible characteristics: 22 of them, to be exact. (And one of the 22 on the list has 11 sub-characteristics.)

Should the new superintendent be familiar with "the crucial issues facing a large urban school district"? Should the superintendent have a record of "changing a large, complex organization"? Of working with unions, involving "civic, corporate, and foundation partners," standing up to "powerful individuals and interest groups."

Well, yes. All of the above. What I want is somebody who knows the challenges of urban districts like Rochester's. Somebody who knows what's happening in the inner cities of America.

Somebody who doesn't insist that despite the concentration of poverty, this school district, on its own, can do the impossible: raise up Rochester's poorest children and send them out into the world able to be successful.

Somebody who will capture the imagination of the Greater Rochester public. Somebody who will fire up public officials and business leaders.

Somebody who can overcome the growing racial tension within this community.

And somebody who has extraordinary vision --- who is thinking way, way ahead of the curve. Maybe somebody who could devise a magnet-school plan that would excite not only city parents and students but also suburban parents. Somebody who could convince suburban districts and area colleges and universities to establish innovative campus schools that would serve city and suburban children.

Is there such a person? We'll see.

If this community had the will, it could create a model school district, one that would show the nation how to overcome the crippling effects of concentrated poverty and set its poorest children on a path to success.

But that can't be done unless the entire community gets involved. So far, we haven't had the will. Urging suburbanites to serve as mentors and tutors is about as big as we think.

Could a new superintendent push us into bolder action? Maybe not. But it doesn't hurt to hope.

Missing from the 'fraud' story

One of Governor Eliot Spitzer's last acts as state attorney general was to file suit against the Rochester school district's former CEO for Business, Henry Marini. Spitzer charges that Marini helped a group of consultants defraud the district.

The consultants got contracts for about $420,000. The suit charges that the consultants and Marini evaded School Board review by subdividing the contracts so that each one would fall under the $25,000 limit that requires that review. And, says Spitzer's suit, some of the work was never done.

`Based on that release --- and the Democrat and Chronicle's Saturday report --- you'd think that Marini and the four consultants have been found guilty. But this is a suit, not a judgment. And it's a civil suit; nobody has charged that a crime has been committed. Rational folks will wait for the outcome of the case.

I'll say here that I've been an admirer of Marini. When he joined the district, its credibility was about as low as it could get. He came from the private sector --- Bausch and Lomb --- and was highly respected. In my own dealings, I found him to be bright, intensely knowledgeable about the district's finances, and passionate about the district and the children it served.

Marini's attorney, Lawrence Andolina, said on Tuesday that it was hard to respond to Spitzer's charges; neither he nor Marini had been served a copy of the complaint. But, insisted Andolina, Marini has done nothing wrong. He cooperated fully with the Spitzer investigation, said Andolina, "and he is prepared to defend himself in the matter."

Marini had "no prior relationship" with the consultants, said Andolina, and all of the consultants' services "were performed and performed well."

And, said Andolina, all of the contracts were approved by other school-district administrators.

I'm not going to sit here and judge this case. But there are two sides in this story. Marini's deserves public airing.

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