Rochester City Council moves ahead with holding November referendum on school governance

Jun 19, 2019

Credit James Brown / WXXI News

City of Rochester voters will be able to vote in a non-binding referendum this November whether they would like to see the school board removed and the state take over the district.

It is non-binding because only  state lawmakers can remove an elected school board from office. 

In a rare split decision, Council President Loretta Scott, Vice President Willie Lightfoot, and Councilmembers Gruber, Patterson and Evans voted for it. They were jeered by some people in the crowd as they gave their final statements on the issue. Citizen Action of New York lead organizer Mercedes Phelan yelled at Lightfoot saying that they’ll “remember this when he’s up for election.” Lightfoot yelled back “bring it.” 

Council members Elaine Spaull, Molly Clifford, and Jackie Ortiz voted no. Clifford said she didn’t have enough clarity on what the next steps would be after the vote. Ortiz says there wasn’t enough time to deliberate on the issue and she doesn’t like the wording of the referendum. Spaull said she didn’t want to take away a vote from the public. Council member LaShay Harris abstained, because she is an employee of the school district. 

The vote was preceded by several months of controversy. In November, former state-appointed Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino issued a harsh critique of the district’s governance, graduation rates, finances, as well as many other issues inside the district.  

In early February, a response to the Distinguished Educator was approved by the Board of Education by a contentious split decision. A month later, Warren was joined by Congressman Joe Morelle and other local leaders to launch the Our Children Our Future petition campaign, which was Warren’s first public appeal to NYS Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to restructure the district. Our Children, Our Future is the name of the bill passed Tuesday night.

Credit James Brown / WXXI News

Within days of Warren’s first appeal, Elia released her first response to the Board of Education. She called the response “inadequate.”  

A few weeks later, Elia returned to Rochester for meetings and a community forum with NYS Regents Wade Norwood and Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown on a Saturday afternoon.  In that meeting, Norwood expressed frustration about how the district uses its money. 

“I’m crying,” Norwood said, “because I’m frustrated, and I’m frustrated because I’m tired of re-arranging deck chairs on this cruise ship, and we ought to be charting a different course.” 

By May, it appeared that the different course was clear. Warren’s Chief of State Alex Yudelson and Morelle’s Senior Advisor Sean Hart, joined Rochester Teachers Union President Adam Urbanski, Norwood, Brown, and Elia on an email chain with a basic framework of a state takeover of Rochester City Schools. Urbanski told WXXI News that the chain stemmed from a meeting with those on the chain earlier this year.

That framework included replacing the elected Rochester Board of Education with a temporary board appointed by Elia. That board would “serve at the pleasure” of the Board of Regents for at least 5 years. The superintendent would report directly to Elia.  

The framework notes that “consideration will need to be given regarding recent leadership decisions made by the RSCD board.” That leadership decision is likely the hiring of incoming superintendent Terry Dade. Beyond this there are no specifics on how the district would be managed. 

In recent weeks, Warren released a video asking for the public to demand a state takeover and submitted legislation to City Council to remove the Board of Education from the city charter which was approved on Tuesday night.  

In the last week, State Senator Rich Funke, Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo and Morelle have expressed support for the idea of a referendum. Assembly members Jamie Romeo and Harry Bronson have spoken out against it.  Romeo said it is inappropriate to approach the voters without a full plan for a takeover. Bronson released his own school reform plan last week.  

Angie Rivera is the president of the Rochester Association of Paraprofessionals. She spoke to Council before the vote. She said that the answers to the district's woes are in Rochester.

“The solution is not in Albany,” said Rivera. “The solution is right here in our city. Rochester has a lot of educated knowledgeable people. We just need to be united and working toward solving the issue and not having our personal agenda.” 

Rivera said she favors Assembly member Harry Bronson's plan for reconfiguring the district. 

Interim Rochester City School District Superintendent Dan Lowengard said he prefers that the council and board work in cooperation to better the district instead of this vote. He also said that there are more efficient ways to gauge public sentiment on the issue. 

"(The referendum is) ceremonial and we could have found out the same information by having a pollster do it, probably cheaper, and all that and that's the way I'd do it," said Lowengard. 

This is the second referendum expected to be on the ballot this fall. Last month, City Council approved a public vote on an independent police accountability board.