One candidate in the Rochester mayoral primary served 14 years on the city school board, including five as president. The other is the self-proclaimed education mayor who made schools the centerpiece of her first two successful campaigns.
It is striking, then, that with just days left before the June 22 primary, education has been mostly absent from the campaign conversation.
It scarcely came up during the two debates between Malik Evans, the challenger and former school board president, and Lovely Warren, the incumbent. Evans has touted his “youth opportunity agenda,” which has more to do with jobs and recreation than education, while Warren largely has been occupied with parrying a set of scandals, including the arrest last month of her husband on drug trafficking charges.
Instead, schooling has been crowded out by other issues, in particular police reform in the aftermath of the death of Daniel Prude.
“If it hasn’t been talked about a lot, it’s because there’s a lot of other issues that are out there,” Warren said.
Evans and Warren are both graduates of Wilson Magnet High School. Both have touted their involvement in the growth of RCSD’s prekindergarten program. Both say the city can’t give more money to the district until it gets more from the state.
As for their own children, both have chosen private schools rather than RCSD.
Perhaps the clearest difference between them is how they envision the mayor’s role in education.
Warren repeatedly has sought to make a mark directly. She designated a “beacon school” with intensive city and community supports; volunteered to serve as a receiver for about half of the district’s schools; and actively campaigned for the state to dissolve the school board.
“My goal in everything is to make sure our children receive quality education … and have the support they need,” Warren said.
None of those efforts, though, have had the desired impact. Her receivership plan and state takeover campaign both failed, as did a subsequent attempt to sever the financial relationship between the city and the district.
The beacon school, Enrico Fermi School 17, continues to rate in the bottom half of RCSD elementary schools by most measures. After a vaunted push for restorative practices, the school in 2019-20 issued more than twice as many suspensions as any other elementary school and more than any school overall except Edison Tech High School.
Warren touted her collaborative approach in her second term, including lending technical assistance to the district during its fiscal crisis in 2019-20. She also mentioned how the city turned its recreation centers into “learning labs” when schools shut down for the pandemic.
“There has always been this us-versus-them mentality,” she said. “Now it’s more that we are working hand-in-hand to get it done together.”
RCSD officials have not always seen Warren as a hand-in-hand partner. During the budget crisis, for instance, the mayor blasted the district publicly and called for a severance of the fiscal bonds between the two bodies.
Warren said that tension is not something she started.
“I wasn’t the first one to talk about mayoral control,” she said. “Every mayor has had this love-hate relationship with the city school board.”
If re-elected, she said, one of her highest priorities would be persuading the state to change the law that prevents reimbursement for school bus rides of less than 1.5 miles in most cases. That law is often cited as a major discouragement of the neighborhood school model that Warren and others support, as it incentivizes parents to pick a more distant school so that their children can take a bus rather than walk.
A holistic approach
Evans, when asked why education hasn’t been a bigger campaign issue, pointed to “people” — Warren, perhaps — learning the limits of power the hard way.
“I think people realized that, guess what: solving our educational challenges is not as easy as people thought it would be,” he said. “It involves empowering the community. That takes work. I have that perspective because I’ve been there.”
Evans outlined a more modest vision of supporting RCSD rather than leading it.
“My role in education as the mayor is as a supporter,” he said. “It’s a mistake for anyone to come in as mayor and think you’re going to run the schools.”
He said he would convene a “community education cabinet” with representatives from the district, the city and the community to identify three or four areas where city government could be helpful.
More generally, though, Evans called for a more “holistic” — his campaign’s cherished term — approach to education.
“I’m looking at all the challenges the next mayor will face, and they’re immense,” he said. “We have to fix policing; we have to fix neighborhoods. That’ll help schools as well.”
His youth opportunity agenda would entail a major expansion of the existing youth employment program as well as adding recreation services and growing Rochester Teen Court, a diversionary program.
Like all school board candidates who seek office elsewhere, Evans has been forced to explain why his long leadership at a still-underperforming school district shouldn’t be a strike against him.
He did so in part by separating himself from the 2019-20 fiscal crisis, which happened after he joined City Council.
“We never ran out of money mid-year; we didn’t have to have a financial monitor,” he said. “Were we perfect? Absolutely not. … But anybody who knows my record on the school board knows it was one of collaboration, despite all the challenges.”
Evans also differs from Warren in supporting a county-wide solution to urban school problems, including the sort of metropolitan school district seen in Wake County, North Carolina.
“That’s the solution,” he said. “I want to start thinking about how we can change that; you can read what you want into that. To me that’s a moral issue.”
Evans conceded, though, that the mayor has little direct authority in that question besides a “bully pulpit,” which he intends to use. In the meantime, he said, he would work on community-based — i.e., non-metropolitan — approaches.
One of those key community partners is Jackie Campbell, director of ROC the Future. She said that the infusion of federal education funding, among other things, will force education back to the forefront as a community issue.
“Now that there’s additional resources coming in, people are really trying to figure out: Where do we fit in and where’s the community being engaged?” Campbell said.
“We’re moving into a space where it’s going to be a critical and major topic. As a community, we need to demand that education be more of a topic, in the mayoral race and everywhere.”
Contact staff writer Justin Murphy at [email protected].