Brainstorming state action on Rochester schools

May 13, 2019 11:29 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) -- Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren intensified her call for state lawmakers to help fix chronic challenges in the city's school system.

On Monday evening, the mayor joined education leaders at a "solutions forum" which featured former New Jersey Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf. 


Cerf served as school superintendent for Newark, New Jersey, after the state took over the city's struggling school system. 

Warren said something similar for Rochester was a possibility.

"Everything is on the table and, for me, I am constantly in discussions with not only our commissioner but with our legislators," she said. "We need legislative action on behalf of our children."

After years of poor performance, the state of New Jersey assumed control of Newark schools for two decades. In that time, Cerf said, graduation rates improved from below 60 percent to almost 80 percent. Rochester, he said, faced a variety of familiar problems like rapid turnover of leadership. Any long term reforms, he insisted, would take a long term commitment, and no less than five years to implement.

School system governance, Cerf declared, should not be confused with management.

He said any superintendent brought on board by any school system should be free to make important hiring and day-to-day decisions. 

"When you have a board that is micromanaging personnel decisions, micromanaging the details that should be left to management, that's a good sign that that structure is not likely to yield very significant changes," he said.

The notion of significant state intervention drew some skepticism at the forum.

"I think it's a mistake to say to the state 'do something,'" exclaimed Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, "or to anybody else, because frankly, the experts on what it is that needs to be done are right here in this town and the ones who care the most are right here."

Cerf urged stakeholders to avoid what he called a "not invented here" attitude in which some school communities believe themselves so utterly unique that nobody from outside the community can reform it or understand it.

"That is an epidemic out of there. You have two adjoining school districts, demographically almost identical, and each one says 'well we are unique.' I would pose the question this way: Whether a child can read a text at a certain level of complexity is no different in Rochester than it is in any other town in America."

While warren asked for legislative action from New York state, Cerf called that a tall order.

"There's almost nothing harder in life than getting a bill passed," he said.

Still, he said a united effort by a community could bring that kind of intervention, if the community made its desire for reform clear.

"If the city's leaders aligned around it," he said. "The mayor, City Council, the school board, and said 'this is what we want,' then it could happen." 


Charles Molineaux

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