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Willa Powell won’t seek re-election in this year’s city school board race

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RCSD school board meeting livestream still
School board member Willa Powell will not seek re-election in this year's race.

After serving 24 years on the Rochester city school board, incumbent commissioner Willa Powell will not seek re-election in the 2023 race.

In a letter to the Monroe County Eastside Democratic Committee, which is set to hold a candidate designation meeting soon, Powell said a significant health setback led to her decision.

“I feel that I still have a lot to contribute to the school board, but I have regretfully come to the conclusion that I cannot expect my health to improve while going through the additional effort of running for reelection,” Powell wrote in the letter which was sent on January 24.

Powell was first elected to the school board in 1997, when Clifford Janey was district superintendent. Since then, nine superintendents have taken up the position, three in the last three years. She returned to the school board in 2003 and has remained on the board ever since, winning re-election five consecutive times.

“There's an awful lot of cycles that repeat themselves,” Powell said in an interview with WXXI News. “You've been around long enough and you see like, ‘Oh, I've been here before.’”

Some of those cycles she says are affected by factors outside of schools, like rates of violent crime affecting youth, while others are affected by state and federal limitations, like the quest to improve school lunches and student achievement.

“Improving our educational outcomes, in general, are a very natty, wicked kind of problem that you know, you try to change one thing and uncovers issues somewhere else.”

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City school board commissioner Willa Powell has served six terms since 1997.

Powell said her time on the board has come full circle. In 1998, she inherited the role of policy chair and took on the work of creating a policy handbook. “Prior to that, we didn't have a manual,” Powell said. “What we had were a collection of random resolutions.”

As she finishes her sixth term this year, Powell is back at the helm of the policy committee where members are reviewing the manual and voting on changes.

Though Powell says her experience on the board has positioned her as a ‘keeper of the memories” and a historian of sorts, some community members have argued that in her time on the school board she has not delivered successful outcomes for the district.

“We must put mechanisms in place to prevent deadweight school commissioners who appear to not have the ability to successfully develop a school budget,” retired special education teacher Ann Lewis said in a budget hearing in April.

Lewis proposed term limits for school board members, citing the long-term tenures of Board President Cynthia Elliot and Commissioner Powell.

“Unfortunately, under their reign, they have not been working diligently to provide the quality education that our children deserve,” Lewis said.

Powell said while she will be stepping away from the board, she doesn’t expect to step away from some of the issues, including addressing whether the city government is adhering to obligations to the school district as indicated in the city charter.

“There's not a lot of gratification that comes out of this job,” Powell said. “But some of us are driven just by a sense of duty, you know, to our responsibility to and for our community. And that's a really hard thing to let go of."

Powell is the only incumbent not expected to run for re-election this year, though she said she may seek re-election in the 2025 race.

Noelle E. C. Evans is an education reporter/producer with a background in documentary filmmaking and education.