In the RCSD-city fight, the children are losing 

We could have been feeling hopeful about the Rochester school district right now. Superintendent Terry Dade has started work, and he seems to be a good fit for Rochester: young enough to have the energy he’ll need, experienced enough – and in urban districts – to tackle the district’s challenges.

And he’s charismatic. That can be a negative trait as easily as it can be a positive one, of course. But if Dade knows how to use his charisma, it could help him attract attention and draw enough public support to establish him quickly as a leader, independent from the other adult forces connected to the school district. The district needs that right now.

And yet just as Dade is getting his bearings, an ugly battle is heating up between City Hall and the district. The community needed this like a hole in the head.

You can blame whichever party you like for starting this mess. You can blame the district for its well-known problems (although it has no control over its largest challenge, the impact of concentrated poverty). Or you can blame the mayor for pushing for a temporary state takeover of the district.

Regardless, nobody’s looking very good right now. Two weeks ago, the mayor sent a letter urging people to vote in the referendum on the takeover. In it, she walked right up to the line between “advocacy” – which the state constitution bars – and “education.” Given its careful wording, the letter probably didn’t cross that line, and it’s the kind of thing politicians do all the time. But that doesn’t mean it was a good idea. It wasn’t. Odds are, most recipients saw through this tactic, and I’d bet that it turned off more people than it inspired.

And then late last week, the school district filed suit against the city to try to stop the referendum. It’s not surprising that the school board is fighting to stay in existence, but suing City Hall seems like a particularly bad idea. The referendum is non-binding; only the state legislature can remove the school board. Two of the three Assembly members who represent the city have no intention of voting to remove the board, and historically, the legislature doesn’t go against the wishes of local representatives on a strictly local issue.

Unless school board members know something I don’t know, then, they’ve already won this fight. And as the mayor says, by trying to stop the referendum, board members look like they don’t want to know what voters think about a takeover because they’re afraid of the answer. The school board has played right into the mayor’s hands.

Adding to the problem: Terry Dade had literally just left his first meeting with the mayor when the mayor was served notice of the suit. Dade knew about the suit that morning but said nothing, according to the mayor’s office. Presumably he couldn’t have said anything, and shouldn’t have. But the school board has put him in a terrible spot. It’s hard to see how he’ll build up any kind of rapport with anybody in City Hall now.

I don’t think either City Hall or school district leaders won anything by their actions over the past couple of weeks. And the obvious losers are the children. People on both sides may argue that children are the heart of their fight over the referendum, but the tactics of the past couple of weeks were all about adults. Children had absolutely nothing to do with them.

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