Mayoral control legislation may represent reformers’ last, best hope at saving Rochester, New York schools

Apr 4, 2013 by

By Ben Velderman –

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Rochester’s troubled school system has seen its share of low points, but it may have reached rock bottom last September.

That’s when it was revealed that only 9 percent of the district’s black male students who started high school in 2006 actually graduated in 2010 – the lowest in the nation, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education.

The problems of the Rochester City School District can’t be blamed on a lack of per-pupil spending. The district spends just under $21,000 per student, placing RCSD “among the top 10 in the nation when it comes to per pupil spending for large school districts,” reports

Rochester residents have a full-blown crisis on their hands, and at least a few of them know it.

Concerned community members and K-12 reformers have made various attempts to improve the school district over the years, but the Rochester Teachers Association – the local teachers union – has managed to block or repeal many of the most effective policies.

Adam Urbanski has served as RTA president for more than 30 years, and is the one constant in the dysfunctional school district.

As one reform advocate notes, Urbanski’s tenure has spanned “six superintendents, four mayors and countless interims.”

Urbanksi is considered so politically powerful that reformers don’t believe they can wrest control of the school board from his iron grip.

So instead of pursuing reform at the school board level, concerned Rochester residents are turning their attention to the city’s upcoming mayoral race.

A trio of reform groups – the Parent Power Project, the Faith Community Alliance and the New York State Center for Educational Justice – recently announced they will be conducting a voter education initiative to inform residents about the education agenda and policy views of each mayoral candidate.

“With this survey, we hope to send a very clear message to candidates and voters alike: in a city with the worst educational outcomes in the state, the absence of an education agenda is the agenda of the status quo,” writes Rev. Ruben Goff, vice president of the Faith Community Alliance, in a recent essay for the Democrat and Chronicle.

On the surface, the groups’ interest in the mayoral race makes little sense. City Hall has little say over how the 32,000-student Rochester City School District operates.

But that could change overnight, if state lawmakers pass state Rep. David Gantt’s bill to put RCSD under mayoral control.

Rochester’s reformers understand that Gantt’s mayoral control bill is little more than a “Hail Mary” attempt to save the city’s students from a crumbling school system. State lawmakers don’t seem inclined to move on Gantt’s bill, which is currently bottled up in the House Education Committee, where most observers believe it will stay.

But a longshot is better than none at all – and it may represent the only chance concerned citizens have to force changes in the beleaguered, union-dominated district.

Is mayoral control the answer?


Typically, mayoral control “means dissolving elected school boards and replacing them with commissions appointed by the mayor,” notes the Wall Street Journal.

Since mayor-appointed commissioners are insulated from political pressures, they are free to pursue school budgets and policies that are focused on meeting the academic needs of students, instead of the financial and work demands of teacher union members.

Should Gantt’s mayoral control bill ever become law, there’s little doubt who reformers want running City Hall when that occurs: City Council President Lovely Warren.

Warren is an outspoken proponent of education reform who has publicly called upon leaders “to try radical solutions and to make severe changes” in order to fix failing public schools. She supported an effort in 2010 to put the mayor in charge of the school district, but has recently downplayed the idea as an issue for the state legislature to decide.

Toning down her support of mayoral control may be a political calculation, as Warren has recently entered the upcoming mayoral election.

Reformers are no doubt heartened by the fact that Warren’s day job is as chief of staff for Gantt – the lawmaker who has been pushing for mayoral control of RCSD in the state legislature since 2010.

Warren will face incumbent mayor (and fellow Democrat) Thomas Richards in a September 10 primary election. Given Rochester’s history as a one-party city, whoever wins the Democratic primary will very likely be the next mayor.

Richards was a supporter of mayoral control of the Rochester school system when he entered office in 2011 through a special election to serve the remainder of his predecessor’s term.

Richards has since distanced himself from the idea, which put him at odds with the K-12 reform community that supported him in 2011.

Relations between the mayor and Rochester’s reform community were further damaged when “an invitation to an exclusive fundraiser” for Richards’ re-election listed Urbanski as part of the mayor’s campaign committee, writes Rochester reform advocate Carrie Remis.

Reformers are still upset over Urbanski’s role in running former Rochester Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard out of town back in 2011.

During Brizard’s three years as superintendent, Rochester schools experienced a number of bold reforms, including the closing of failing schools, the addition of more charter schools and policies that based teacher pay and layoffs on an educator’s performance.

That progress was short-circuited when the RTA passed a historic no-confidence vote against Brizard.

After the lopsided 95-5 percent vote, Urbanski warned that the superintendent “either has to change his mind or change his location.”

After Brizard decided to “change his location,” the union worked with new school leaders to roll back many of his reforms.

That’s why the “Richards-Urbanski alliance” – as reformers have started calling it – is so distasteful to many in the Rochester community.

And that’s why Warren’s candidacy seems to represent the only immediate hope of reversing the decay that’s taken hold in the school district.

Mayoral control on the rise, varies by city 

Since 1992, 17 cities have turned the reins of its school system – at least temporarily – over to the mayor’s office, including Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Hartford, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Chicago.

The Center for American Progress just released a report about mayoral control, titled “Mayoral Governance and Student Achievement: How Mayor-led Districts Are Improving School and Student Performance.”

In a companion article, Center for American Progress’ Education Policy Analyst Juliana Herman notes there is no “one and only” type of mayoral control.

“Different cities have taken different approaches, and new formats are still being invented,” Herman writes.

Some cities, such as Chicago, allow the mayor to fill the revamped school board with his or her hand-chosen representatives.

Other cities, such as New York City, only allow the mayor to appoint a majority of board members. This policy allows the local teachers union to help elect the other members, which gives the union at least some influence in making decisions for the school system.

But the thing that all districts under mayoral control have in common is the ability to “spend their money differently, more strategically, and with a greater focus on the classroom than districts governed by elected boards,” Herman writes.

That typically results in more teachers, smaller class sizes, and more money dedicated for student support.

It’s not too surprising that mayoral control is leading to greater levels of student learning.

“Mayoral-controlled districts have seen improved student achievement across all subjects and student groups,” Herman writes.

In Boston, for example, the percent of fourth-graders who are proficient in math increased 21 percentage points after the district was put under mayoral control, Herman notes.

“Similarly, the percentage of fourth-graders in Washington D.C. that were proficient in reading went from 10 percent to 20 percent,” after the switch to mayoral control was made.

Rochester parents would welcome any sign of sustained academic progress in their district.

It seems unlikely that Rochester City School District will be put under mayoral control anytime soon. But at least some parents and concerned citizens have decided that’s the only way their schools are ever going to improve.

via Mayoral control legislation may represent reformers’ last, best hope at saving Rochester, New York schools – :: Education Research, Reporting, Analysis and Commentary.

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