Dahl and Rochester college presidents back mayoral control

Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy has spearheaded an initiative, backed by a strong following of university and college presidents in the Rochester area, to implement mayoral control for Rochester City School District.

Currently, school boards elected by Rochester residents control the district. Duffy is advocating a shift in governance that would eliminate school boards and cede control of the district to the city government. Mayor Michael Bloomberg enacted mayoral control of New York City public schools in 2002, but state senators were unable to renew the legislation before it expired last summer.

President Christopher Dahl, along with 18 other presidents, publically stated their support for this move in a Feb. 23 letter to the Democrat & Chronicle. According to Dahl, Duffy met with the members of Rochester Area Colleges, a loose consortium of presidents of local colleges and universities, to ask for their support of his plans. Dahl was not present at the meeting, but said he and the other presidents signed on to the letter because they care about the students of Rochester and believe that giving Duffy and the City Council a five-year trial period to improve the city's school district is a good idea given the district's struggles.

"With a number of caveats, I support the idea of mayoral control," Dahl said, noting that he does not subscribe to the view that it presents a perfect solution or the right option for all districts. "Geneseo is closely connected with, and cares a lot about, the Rochester City School District," he said, citing multiple partnerships that the college has with the city and the district, including the Rochester Young Scholars Academy.

"Real reform and progress don't seem to be coming" despite long-standing efforts to improve the district, Dahl said. "It might be time to try something different."

"It is precisely because we are involved in the city schools and care about the education of the youth that we hope people can move beyond bitter discussions about governance and work cooperatively to address the needs of the city schools and our children," wrote Daan Braveman, president of Nazareth College, in a separate letter to the Democrat & Chronicle.

Duffy's initiative has sparked considerable debate even though no formal legislation has yet been drafted to enact the switch. The Rochester Teachers Association released a letter dated Jan. 31 that opposes Duffy's plan. "Mayoral control of city schools represents the biggest threat to public education in Rochester," the letter states. "Why should city residents be deprived of their democratic right to vote for their own school board members?" Former Rochester Mayor William Johnson and former interim RCSD Superintendent William Cala have expressed opposition to the plan as well.

Supporters of the plan include politician Harold Ford Jr. and Gov. David Paterson.

Tim Adams, class of 2008, wrote an open letter to Dahl deriding his support of the plan. "I am absolutely appalled that the name of my old college - the same institution that taught me so much about thinking critically and actively engaging in the world around me - is being attached to a document as misleading as your letter."

"Dahl needs to be held accountable … because he is spreading false information to the community and basing his endorsement on that false information," Adams wrote in an e-mail to The Lamron.

A study by BRX Global Research Services of Rochester found that 51 percent of city parents prefer keeping the school board in charge of the school system while 17 percent favored mayoral control and 32 percent were unsure. The president of BRX is Jeff Gutenberg, a professor in Geneseo's School of Business who teaches marketing courses.

A switch to mayoral control would require approval from state legislature.

"Tragically, for decades, too many students in the school district have failed to graduate from high school, and fewer still have graduated with the skills necessary for success in college or in the workplace. This year, only 46 percent of students will graduate on time. This level of failure is unacceptable, and it is all the more tragic because it is not really our students who are failing.

The State Education Department recently announced that nine high schools in the city are failing their students, based on students' lack of progress as indicated by test scores and graduation rates.

Examples? Eighty-five percent of eighth-graders at Global Media Arts School and 84 percent of Bioscience and Health Careers cannot pass English examinations at a basic skills level. Students who cannot understand what they are reading, cannot succeed in high school. At Monroe High School, 87 percent of eighth-graders failed to demonstrate basic skills in math. At East High, it was 81 percent. These results are especially tragic in Rochester, a city with a proud history of quality educational institutions that has fueled entrepreneurialism, innovation and creativity for almost two centuries.

Our institutions are eager to be genuine partners in the education of our community's future leaders. Unfortunately, in all too many cases we have the opportunity to work with Rochester city students either because they never graduate from high school or graduate ill-prepared for college work."

--Letter from 19 Rochester Area College presidents to Democrat and Chronicle, Feb. 23, 2010