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Urbanski facing rare challenge to lead city teachers union in what may be his final re-election bid

Photo combination shows RTA President Adam Urbanksi on the left and presidential candidate Audrey Sowell on the right.
File and provided photos
Adam Urbanski (left) and Audrey Sowell (right)

The long-serving and oft-maligned president of the Rochester teachers union is facing a rare challenge to what he says will probably be his final run for re-election.

Adam Urbanski first was elected president of the Rochester Teachers Association back in 1981, and he has faced few challengers in the 42 years since.

But a slate of teachers and staffers has stepped forward looking to oust him and other union leadership.

The group, calling itself ROC Teachers in Action, claims to represent “the most significant opposition campaign” ever mounted against current RTA leadership with candidates for every officer and more than a dozen other department leadership positions.

“I don't have anything against Urbanski,” said Audrey Sowell, a union representative who teaches sixth grade at School 17 and leads the slate. "I just believe there's a time and a season for everyone. And I just believe his season is up.”

Sowell is 51. She would have been 9 years old and attending School 17 when Urbanski took office.

“I was a child,” she said.

Urbanski last faced a challenger in 2017.

‘Probably my last’

"I did deliberate deeply, whether or not I should be a candidate in this election,” Urbanski said Thursday, “and I was persuaded that I should. This may be my last two-year term. … If successful in this election, this probably will be my last two-year term.”

Teachers persuaded Urbanski to run again, he said.

Concerns have been mounting, though, as younger, more progressive and diverse members have sought greater influence in the union. Those demands grew louder during the height of the pandemic and the return to school.

Members now central to this slate have argued current leadership is too far removed from the realities of the present-day classroom. The latest contract did little to settle their frustrations.

From the archive:Rochester educators, school board to vote on new teacher contract

“We're already sitting at ... over 250 substitute teachers who are not certified,” Sowell said. “And we lose in teachers every day. … That is really sending a message that our inner-city kids don't deserve to have certified skilled teachers at the time they are needed most.”

The latest contract, she said, did not do enough in pay and incentives “to stop teachers from leaving, and to bring in new, skilled teachers for the future. We're looking like we're willing to take the bare minimum to have a body in the classroom.”

Fresh eyes vs. experience

Sowell said she has worked 21 years in the district as a substitute teacher, an English Language Arts coach, an adult educator and a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher.

Urbanski hasn’t been a full-time teacher for more than 40 years. Like the heads of other municipal unions, he was afforded something known as “release time,” which allowed him to collect his teacher’s salary while working full-time for the union. He officially retired as a teacher in 2013.

“To have so many years outside of the classroom, and after the pandemic ... I would think it would be challenging for him to have an accurate assessment of what we are going through as teachers,” Sowell said of Urbanski, who is retired. “It’s one thing to hear about it. And it's a whole different thing to experience it.”

The other officer candidates are:

  • Kellene Paul, a third-grade teacher, running for RTA secretary against incumbent Matt Lavonas. 
  • Kristen French, a speech and language pathologist at School 15 and current RTA executive council member, is running for first vice president against John Pavone. 
  • Amy Labrosa, a special education teacher at School of the Arts, is running for second vice president against Margaret Sergent. 
  • Bill Best, a math teacher at School of the Arts, is running for RTA treasurer against Aimee Rinere. 

Urbanski said he welcomes the challenge and sees it as a sign of a healthy union. His decades at the helm have given members “ample opportunity” to judge his performance, he said, and speak to his support and commitment.

“There is something to be said for experience,” he said. “There's something to be said for continuity – not only continuity within the union, but within the district. There is something to be said for a historic memory of both the exact language and the spirit of agreements.”

He has seen 15 different superintendents over the course of his tenure. Eight of those – including interims – were in the past decade. And his tenure, while lengthy, is not unmatched. His counterpart in Buffalo, Philip Rumore, also first took office in 1981, and also is seeking re-election.

RTA will mail out ballots next month; all votes must be cast by early May. Winners are expected to be announced May 16.

Brian Sharp is WXXI's investigations and enterprise editor. He also reports on business and development in the area. He has been covering Rochester since 2005. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.