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City files appeal on RCSD referendum

Emily Hunt for WXXI News

As Mayor Lovely Warren promised, the city filed an appeal Friday in the New York State Supreme Court's Appellate Division, asking the court to reverse a recent court decision barring a referendum on a state takeover of the Rochester City School District.

In June, City Council approved Warren's request for a referendum on a temporary takeover of the district, which would remove the elected Rochester school board.

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The school district sued the city, and on Aug. 2, State Supreme Court Justice Scott Odorisi sided with the district, saying that the referendum is "advisory" because only the state Legislature can remove the school board, and an advisory referendum is prohibited by state law.

Odorisi ruled that a letter from Warren to 30,000 constituents was "improper" because it implied an endorsement of the takeover.

But City Corporation Counsel Tim Curtin said the court’s ruling did not specify where the line was crossed.

"The law defines what advocacy is, and the law defines what informational letters are, but the judge never defined where the line was exceeded," Curtin said. "He cited three examples he identified as innocuous. He then concluded that the letter smacked of advocacy without ever quoting or pointing to any line to support his argument."

The Warren administration also wanted to remove school board members' salaries regardless of the outcome of the referendum, and Odorisi ruled against that as well.

In its 33-page appeal, the city cites school district problems that were detailed in a report by Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino, including that the district has had five superintendents in the last 10 years, school board members haven't been clear about their role, and board members have tried to manage the day-to-day operations of the district.

"So the Distinguished Educator -- not me, not the mayor -- said the only thing you can do to fix this is a total transformation," Curtin said.

Odorisi said that the school district is a separate institution from city government, and he cited a previous court decision saying that public education is "beyond control by municipalities."

In its appeal, the city argues that:

  • School board members "in essence" have two "largely overlapping offices," one created by state education law and another created by the City Charter.
  • The charter provisions under dispute were enacted by the state Legislature and thus are not preempted by state law.
  • Rather than being an "advisory" referendum, state law requires the referendum because it abolishes or changes the terms of an elected official.
  • The mayor's letter to 30,000 constituents was educational, not advocacy.

School district officials released a statement saying that they were "evaluating the city's arguments" and that they "are confident in the merits" of their case.

Macaluso is a CITY Newspaper reporter. Includes reporting from WXXI News' Noelle E. C. Evans.