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Merits of mayoral control debated at RBJ forum

Rochester Business Journal
March 23, 2010

(To watch the entire forum, click on the "play" arrow above. Or view the RBJ Power Breakfast on Vimeo.)

With increasing poverty and declining population in the city, the Rochester City School District is at a tipping point and the need to improve it through deep changes could not be more clear, Mayor Robert Duffy said at a Rochester Business Journal panel discussion on the merits of mayoral control Tuesday.

Just what kind of change is needed and whether a system of mayoral control could be effective here was a point of debate, however. The forum also touched on ways to improve performance and accountability in school districts, what type of mayoral control system has worked in other cities and whether such a system would disenfranchise parents and city voters.

The event, part of RBJ’s Power Breakfast Series, took place at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center. It drew more than 300 attendees.

Panelists for the event included Kenneth Wong, chairman of the education department at Brown University and author of “The Education Mayor;” Dennis Walcott, deputy mayor for educational and community development for New York City; Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University; Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association; and Van White, a member of the city school board and critic of the mayor's plan.

Duffy said the need for city control of the district is evident by the poor performance in the classroom and graduation rates, where Rochester ranks second to last in the state. He also said the city is “hemorrhaging children” who drop out of schools and are lost to crime, unemployment and violence.

Panelists disagreed on whether mayoral control is proven to raise performance in districts and cut the gap between low- and high-performing schools. Walcott said graduation rates in New York City have risen 27 percentage points since mayoral control was instituted there in 2002 and the city now has an effective system to measure student outcomes on an individual basis.

But both White and Urbanski pointed to Chicago and Cleveland, each with mayoral control and among the worst-performing urban districts in the nation using data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C., two of the highest-performing urban districts, have a traditional elected school board system, they noted.

On the issue of disenfranchisement, panelists split on whether a mayoral control system was justified in taking away citizens’ right to vote on school board representation. Urbanski said that even if mayoral control did bring some improvements, the ends did not justify the means and it is inherently wrong to take away the right to vote for school board members.

He compared such a system to his upbringing in Communist Poland, where all the power for decision-making rested with one party.

“You’re saying to parents that you want them to no longer have the opportunity to vote for school board members, and instead substitute that Mayor Duffy would appoint people,” Urbanski said.

Wong said he does not look at mayoral control as disenfranchisement, but rather re-enfranchisement. He noted mayors have a better chance to mobilize parents and encourage more meaningful participation.

Parental involvement has been addressed in New York City, Walcott said. The city’s department of education conducts a survey of parents second in size only to the census there, Walcott said. It also has coordinators in schools to meet with parents and take their concerns.

“We put a lot of emphasis into reaching parents,” he said.

The discussion often focused back to the proposal for Rochester, with Urbanski and White speaking against the idea. Urbanski noted the futility of discussing specifics of a system he does not believe in.

“I don’t think anything is as pointless or wasteful as trying to improve something that we shouldn’t be doing to begin with,” he said to applause from some of the union members in attendance.

Speaking at the conclusion of the forum, Duffy said he heard little from critics about how to improve the current system, especially for students. He said it is clear that change needs to occur and said he is grateful that the proposal has spurred debate on the best way to do so.

“We are violating the civil rights of our children when we don’t have a system to provide them what they need when they need it,” Duffy said.

 (c) 2010 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail


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