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State reviewing school board's response to report

Emily Hunt
for WXXI News

The Rochester Board of Education’s response to a state report that demanded improvements in the management and graduation rates is now under review.

The board approved a 110-page response in a split decision, 4-2 on Wednesday night. Natalie Sheppard and Judy Davis voted no. Board President Van White, Vice President Cynthia Elliott, and Commissioners Willa Powell and Liz Hallmark voted in favor of the measure. Commissioner Beatriz Lebron was out of town for the vote.

The response is an answer to Distinguished Educator Jamie Aquino’s report on the state of the district. The New York State Education Department says it brings in distinguished educators to “assist low-performing districts and schools within such districts that failed to make adequate yearly progress for four or more years.

Aquino’s report was released in November and asked for a “total reset” of district practices and policies. It detailed 84 problems including its management, its low graduation rate and how its programs spend money.

T. Andrew Brown is vice chancellor of the state Board of Regents, which oversees the state education department. He said he’s hopeful the response will lead to improvement in city schools.

“Hopefully, it’ll provide some answers to the many questions that were provided by Dr. Aquino,” Brown said. “This is a very serious matter and the commissioner and the Board of Regents are looking forward to the district’s response.”

The response came with some dissent on the school board. Sheppard and Davis said their concerns about the report were not a part of the district’s response. Sheppard was concerned that some elements of the response would have to be collectively bargained with employee unions. Sheppard said that she was told that time constraints would prevent her changes to document to be included.

“We only had two months and that’s a very short amount of time for all of the things we were expected to do in this report,” said Sheppard. “Which is why I begged from day one that we hit the ground running. And that did not happen.”

Davis read a letter she plans to send to New York State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia detailing her concerns. Davis said the plan doesn't properly address structural racism, and she criticized the district’s response to concerns about special education. Davis also said that the district's structural deficit will lead to “cuts of essential services.”’ She also said not enough voices were heard while the response was put together.

“If you put together a response and action items without the people who actually have to implement them, I think that’s problematic,” Davis said.

School Board President Van White said at Wednesday’s meeting that this was the first time he heard those concerns from Sheppard and Davis. He called the response “a living, breathing document” and said more changes are likely. He praised the effort put into the report which has been sent to Elia. 

“This is a good document,” White said. “A lot of people put a lot of work into it, and they should be applauded for that, and their work is appreciated.”

All this causes Brown to have concerns about the state of the report.

“This is a report that is so important that it should be coming in a finished form, in my opinion,” said Brown. “To say that you haven’t had enough time to edit the report leads me to wonder. But then again, I haven’t seen it yet, so I don’t know what to make of that.”

As for where the district goes from here, that’s in the hands of Albany.

“We are carefully reviewing the report and will provide the Rochester school board and district with feedback in the coming weeks to ensure the children of Rochester receive the high-quality education they deserve,” state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said in a statement.

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.