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Tensions, challenges rising on Rochester school board


The Rochester school board elected its leaders on January 2, but the meeting didn't go smoothly, with long-simmering tension between the newest board members and more senior members erupting in public. And there's little indication that things between them will improve any time soon.

The board elected Van White as president for the fifth consecutive year, and Cynthia Elliott was elected vice president, a position she also held in 2017. In both cases, the four senior members voted for White and Elliott, two of the newest members voted against them, and the third new member abstained.

This wasn't the first split between the two factions. For months, new board members Natalie Sheppard and Beatriz LeBron have voiced their concerns about what they call the "status quo" way of doing things. In one of her first board meetings, Sheppard chastised the district administration and fellow board members over the slow progress on improving student performance, and for a lack of accountability.

And LeBron shocked some board members and City Council members last year when she sent Council a written statement recommending that they not approve the school budget. While LeBron had voted against the budget during the school board deliberation, most board members hadn't known she was going to send her statement to Council. LeBron cited potential problems with the district's long-term finances and budget management.

During last week's meeting to elect new officers, the split on the board became even sharper when new board member Judith Davis abstained from voting, saying that to do otherwise would be incompatible with the public's interest "to vote into power persons who have not historically enunciated the import of institutional racism on education."

LeBron nominated Sheppard for president, and Sheppard nominated LeBron for vice president. When White prevailed, Sheppard spoke out emotionally.

"We had an opportunity to re-brand the reputation of this board," she said. But that opportunity was squandered, she said: "We're going to continue doing the same thing."

Despite some hard work, Sheppard said, the board has lost its credibility with the public. "Distrust," she said, "creates a cloud over the district."

In a telephone interview the following day, Sheppard said she was still frustrated by the results of the voting.

"But I'm glad that the community got a first-row seat to see that they keep recycling the same leadership," she said. "It's not the full board that's the barrier to improvements."

In an interview after the meeting, White offered a different view.

"I think they feel that the present board has not been effective," he said, "and I understand they may believe that, but they don't seem to understand that when some of us got started on the board, the district was failing much worse than it is now. They're seeing failure, but they're not seeing where we started."

For instance, he said, graduation rates have steadily inched upward in the last few years, and during the same period, suspensions have dramatically decreased.

Disagreement between board members is not unusual, White said. And while some critics say the board is dysfunctional, White said it takes time to find common ground.

The split on the board comes at a particularly challenging time for the Rochester school district. Board members are already under scrutiny following a scathing report from Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino that highlighted their inability to work together cohesively.

Some of the longer-serving board members haven't accepted the necessity to make the changes outlined in Aquino's report, LeBron said in an interview, starting with board governance.

"We can't even agree how the board should be governed or the need for training," LeBron said. "They don't like being called out. They're not taking Jaime's recommendations as seriously as they should be."

In early February, the board will have to give a report to State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia addressing Aquino's recommendations for improving the district. In addition, Elia will soon release the state's list of schools that are persistently low performing. School district officials expect that some of the district's "receivership" schools that are currently on the list will show improvement, but they also expect that new schools will be added to the list.

Another high-priority issue facing the board: A search for a new superintendent. Barbara Deane-Williams leaves at the end of the month.