Community members continue to oppose Mayor Bob Duffy’s push for mayoral control of the Rochester City School District (RCSD). As he waits for the city’s legislative approval, he has agreed to attend forums and listen to dissenting opinions.

Last Thursday evening, the Baptist Minister’s Alliance President Emmitte Myrick Jr. and the United Church Ministries President Rev. Shirley Billups-Bell hosted a community forum at the Helping Hand Missionary Baptist Church to tackle the conflict head-on. The forum was conducted to provide locals with information and useful statistics for making an informed stand in the debate.

A majority of the crowd consisted of local Christian Ministers, who have a strong voice in educational and community development, and educators. Many were surprised, however, to see unexpected guest Duffy in the back pew.
‘I came to listen and be respectful,” Duffy said. ‘I understand that this forum is being conducted on behalf of those who oppose what I’m trying to do, and I respect their opinion.”

Shortly after an opening prayer, former Fairport Superintendent and Nazareth College Professor William Cala was welcomed as the guest speaker. Cala is known for publishing articles that use statistics to suggest that mayoral control leads to poorer conditions in education.

Thursday’s stage was hardly different. Cala assured the crowd that the issue is deeply seeded beyond Duffy’s control, attributing the more recent failures to No Child Left Behind. Cala blamed the ‘Houston Miracle,” a name given to the apparent test scoring and gap closing improvements under Rod Paige’s control of the Houston Independent School District, for formulating the poor habits of NCLB, including poor representation of data and lowering test requirements. Cala argued that the miracle should have been called the ‘Houston Mirage.”

Cala then went on to provide statistics to support his claim that mayoral control increases gaps and ignores those who oppose it.

‘Seventy-seven percent of white and Asian students performed better than Spanish and black eighth graders in math in 2003.” Cala said ‘In 2008, 81 percent of whites performed better. Fifty-four percent is the percentage of New York City parents who disapproved of mayor Bloomberg’s control of NYC public schools, according to a March 2009 poll. Those statistics are mind numbing.”

Before opening the floor for questions, Cala offered alternatives to improve the RCSD.The suggestions that stirred up the most responses were his calls for stronger candidates, no salaries for board members and the elimination of a party-centered system. Cala speculated that a party-cen tered system is the reason for low voter turnouts; people seem to discredit their vote because they assume that the affiliation of the school board will always fall on the side of the party that has majority political control.
Duffy requested to have quick closing remarks, but this would open the stage for an extensive debate between educators, ministers and RCSD employees.

Duffy started off on neutral grounds by acknowledging that both sides of the argument care about the children and want to improve the situation.

However, Duffy triggered a dissenting opinion when he used the same examples that Cala used to discredit mayoral control to support his stand. Duffy argued that the presentation of data can be partially interpreted and synthesized. Thus, he claimed that Chancellor Michelle Reed’s control of D.C. schools was for the better, and not as detrimental as Cala had previously made it out to be.

‘Look at the changes that we need,” Duffy said. ‘Washington, D.C. was taken over by Michelle Reed. She’s one of the most controversial chancellors in the country. And Bill was right, worst urban district in the country. But when she took over, the disparity of achievements between white students and African American students was at 70 percent. It is now down to 50 percent. Now she feels that in five years she can get it down to zero where there is no disparity.”

As the evening’s discussion ran well over time, the church had to close down and push further debate to a later forum.

While some UR students may be indifferent to the outcome of the debates, both sides acknowledge the importance of student involvement in the discussions.

‘I care a great deal about the student at the University of Rochester,” Duffy said. ‘Ideally, I would hope that most of you [students] decide to live in Rochester after you graduate. So I continue to encourage students to get involved with the community.”

Duffy intends to meet with UR President Joel Seligman in the upcoming days.

In an effort to bring the discussion on campus, Warner School of Education Associate Professor and Director of Urban Teaching and Leadership Edward Brockenbough will be conducting a teach-in on mayoral control of public schools in Dewey 1-101 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. this evening. The expert panel will include a representative from Warner School of Education, Assistant Director of the T. Kearns Center Anthony Plonczynski and principal of the School Without Walls Dan Drmacich. In addition, the panelists hope to provide ways for students to get involved.

‘Lots of sound bites have circulated in the local media about the pros and cons of mayoral control, but this issue deserves more than sound bite summations,” Brockenbrough said. ‘The Teach?In will offer an opportunity to look more closely at the arguments for and against mayoral control, and hopefully we’ll be able to identify next steps for those who want to become involved in organizing and advocacy efforts around this issue.”

Currently, a draft legislation has been passed for review by New York State legislators in Albany. A decision to proceed in the reform won’t come until March.

Nathaniel is a member of the class of 2011.

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