Thursday 2 February 2023
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Former Mayor Duffy: We Own School Failure, We Need to Change It

Patti Singer

Update: The City of Rochester has appealed the decision by a state Supreme Court justice who threw out the proposed referendum on whether the state could take over the schools, at least on a short-term basis.

The Rochester City School District had challenged the referendum on several legal points, and the parties argued their positions Aug. 1 in front of Justice J. Scott Odorisi.

On Aug. 2, Odorisi found for the district when he ruled the proposed referendum was advisory and he barred it from being on the ballot in November.

Later that day, the city appealed on “each and every part” of the order by Odorisi, “as well as from the whole thereof,” according to court documents.

Mayor Lovely Warren on Aug. 2 posted a letter to city children that said the city would appeal and in which she wrote: “It’s no accident that the court filings of the school district fail to mention you and your families. Not once are you the concern of school district and its lawyers. Because this court case was about one thing: denying you the right to be heard. Denying your parents and grandparents the right to vote. Protecting their ability to profit while continuing to deny you opportunity.”

The RCSD wants to block the city from a referendum on school control.

If the graduation rate anywhere else in Monroe County hovered around 50%, “people would be storming town government offices,” said Robert Duffy, the former mayor who is president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce.

Duffy said that the poverty and incarceration plaguing Rochester “come back to education failure. Incremental changes, one or two percent either way, is not success. I don’t blame anybody. I think we need to implement system change. It has to be done in accordance with law.”

Whether the latest proposal — a referendum on at least the short-term future of the school board — is legal is the latest sticking point in what has been a decades-long attempt to get consistent improvement in the district.

Duffy spoke Aug. 1 after listening to state Supreme Court Justice J. Scott Odorisi question attorneys for the Rochester City School District and the city about a proposed referendum by City Council to allow temporary state control of the school board.

Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce CEO Robert Duffy talks about trying to change the school system in Rochester

The school district sued to stop the referendum from appearing on the ballot Nov. 5. The city responded with why it should go forward, and both sides ended up in front of Odorisi to make their cases. He announced he would make a decision on Aug. 2.

The clock is ticking because according to the Board of Elections, the ballot has to be prepared well before November in part to accommodate absentee voters. Initially, there was an Aug. 5 deadline, but a representative of the Board of Elections said that could be extended a few days.

For about 30 minutes, RCSD attorney Alison K. Moyer and city attorney Patrick Beath stated their arguments and took questions from Odorisi.

After the hearing, Beath said the city’s key point was that because it wants to change the charter with regards to the school board, it has to hold a referendum.

Moyer left while reporters were talking with Beath and corporation counsel Tim Curtin.

Among his questions, Odorisi asked specifically about interpretations of the intent of the July 12 letter on City Hall letterhead and signed by Mayor Lovely Warren that included the statement: “I hope you join with me and vote so, once and for all, we know exactly what you – our parents and citizens – want.”

The phrase “I hope you join with me and vote” was one of nine that were printed in bold red lettering.

Curtin said after the hearing that the mayor’s intent was to get people to vote. “She’s very passionate about this subject. She thinks the voice of the voters can only be heard to the extent they show up at the polls. She’s very concerned with the voting and very concerned with the health of our school district and recognizing that the school district needs a bit of help. So she wants people to come out to vote so their voice can be heard.

School board member Willa Powell, who said she was there only as an observer, said Odorisi’s questions of city council “suggested he was incredulous of the argument.”

Duffy also said he listened as an interested observer. As mayor from 2006 through 2010, he floated the idea of having that office take control of the schools.

“I was just trying to effect some change,” he said, “At some point, city leaders … and voters have to come to realize what’s in the best interests and future of our city.”

Duffy’s job now is to recruit and retain businesses in the Rochester area. “If we’re not graduating kids ready to work … we’re failing our business community and we’re failing our economy,” he said.

In a video that he made to support Warren’s call for a state takeover of the schools, Duffy warned of a “spirited campaign against this referendum by people who … benefit from the status quo.”

He said his interpretation of the mayor’s letter is that “if you’re happy with the way things are, then don’t support any change. If you want a change, vote yes. I think that’s the concept the mayor tried to get across.”

However, Duffy pointed to low voter turnout. “People cannot sit on the sidelines and expect things to change.”

Duffy said that from his experience and his observations, decisions over the past years have not put children first. “If that is done, that will carry the day. If everyone is behind what is best for kids, we’ll make better decisions. We own it here. We have to change it.”