School board referendum decision coming Friday

Aug 1, 2019

Credit Emily Hunt for WXXI News

The judge who's hearing a Rochester City School District lawsuit against the city of Rochester says he'll issue a decision at 10 a.m. Friday. 

The district's lawsuit aims to stop a referendum that would approve a temporary state takeover of the district and removal of the school board. 

In June, City Council approved Mayor Lovely Warren's request for the referendum, which would be non-binding since only the state Legislature can remove the elected board. If the referendum survives the lawsuit, voters would weigh in on whether to change the city charter by removing language referring to the school board and removing the board members’ salaries in November. 

Judge Scott Odorisi asked City Attorney Patrick Beath about the legality of those measures. He also asked whether the measures conflict with state law. 

The school district’s attorney, Alison Moyer, made a similar argument, adding that the city charter, specifically in regards to the Board of Education, was outdated and that the district is separate from the city. She called the referendum a “poll” that “doesn’t do anything.” Moyer asked for a permanent injunction to remove the referendum from the November ballot.

Beath argued that the district’s lawsuit has no merit because the board and their salaries are governed by the charter. He said that if the referendum goes forward and fails, the board would exist but would not be paid. 

School Board Commissioner Willa Powell watched the arguments in court and takes exception to city council’s attempt to remove their salaries. 

“Our salary is set at 75 percent of council’s salary,” Powell said. “If city council thinks we get paid too much. All they have to do is reduce their own salaries to zero and ours drops to zero.”

Powell doesn’t believe that council intended to cut their salaries.

“The city council passed our budget on the same day that they passed that referendum,” said Powell. “And our budget included salaries. There’s no way city council intended for school board salaries to be removed, permanent or temporary.”

Odorisi also questioned Beath about a letter addressed from Mayor Lovely Warren that was sent to some city residents in July. 

The letter asks residents to “vote with me.” Odorisi asked Beath, whether that statement was Warren encouraging voters to vote for the referendum. 

Beath and the city’s Corporation Council Tim Curtin claims Warren was misunderstood.

“If you read the letter in detail the mayor wants folks to vote. She’s very passionate about this subject and she thinks the voice of the voters can only be heard to the extent they show up at the polls,” said Curtin. “She’s also very concerned with the health of our school district and recognizes that the school district needs a bit of help. So she wants people to come out to vote so their voice can be heard.” 

Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce CEO Bob Duffy also attended the hearing. He’s been a vocal advocate for a change in leadership for many years and says it’s a crucial part of his role at the chamber.

“I represent over 13,000 companies who are looking for employees,” said Duffy. “So if we are not graduating kids that are ready to work we are failing our business community, we are failing the economy, and all we’ll do is create more poverty.”

Monroe County Board of Elections lawyer Chuck Johnson watched closely. He said that in order for the referendum to be on November’s ballot, a final decision has to be made by Monday. But, he says, there are circumstances that could extend that deadline to mid-August. 

Brown is a WXXI News reporter. Moule is a CITY Newspaper reporter.