LONSBERRY: Rochester Super May Leave District

Rochester City School District Superintendent Terry Dade has instructed his lawyer to begin discussions with the district’s law department about his possible departure.

Not because he’s a quitter.

But because the board is killing him.

The same way it has killed the futures of tens of thousands of young Rochesterians who look to the district as their only escape from poverty and hopelessness.

On the job less than 10 months, Terry Dade has faced a firestorm from his first days in office. The district is chronically one of the lowest-performing urban districts in America while spending ever larger and more staggering amounts of money. Brought in to fix the academics, Dade discovered that the district’s budget was $30 million in the red, and that the looming year’s budget was out of balance by some $65 million.

That didn’t happen by accident.

That was the result of malfeasant actions of the preceding administration, and of incompetent direction from the board of education.

A board of education, by the way, which is the highest paid in the state, and which has become a parking lot for cranks and wannabes, people who crave public attention and can cobble together enough votes to wedge themselves into the biggest honeypot in the city.

For years – I have personally observed it for 30 years – the Rochester school board has been a sad disappointment. Its members typically do not understand their role, how schools work, the details of public education law, how a budget works, or what professional ethics are – much less what needs to happen in a classroom to make the sacred task of education succeed. The net impact of the board’s efforts over decades is a proliferation of high-paying jobs for politically connected friends, and an ever worsening educational outcome for the sons and daughters of Rochester.

They are good at spending lots of money with friends to put forward the latest pet project, but they have been completely ineffective at making the schools places of learning and opportunity for students.

In short, adults get rich and kids get shafted.

That’s how the district has worked.

And then came Terry Dade.

Mom was a teacher and dad was a cop and he learned young the value of honesty, hard work and integrity. Those traits, and a relentless desire to build young lives, brought him to a series of successful responsibilities in the Washington, D.C., area.

And last July he showed up here.

Mild mannered. Polite. Buttoned down. Methodical. By the book. Always about the students.

And those who thought they could play him got a big surprise.

After years of weak or temporary superintendents who went along to get along – and get paid a lot of money for it – Terry Dade wasn’t anybody’s puppet. He wasn’t punching a ticket to get one of the mega jobs in a big city, he didn’t wave the demographic flag as a substitute for academic achievement, he showed up ready to work and serve.

And he scared the hell out of the powers that be.

He wasn’t a cupcake. Nobody was going to push him around. He wasn’t belligerent – just the opposite – but he was unflinching in advancing what was good.

And that impressed people. A lot of people. Big and small.

It quickly became apparent that Terry Dade was the best superintendent the district had seen in decades. It also became apparent that he was the last chance the students of Rochester had.

And people rallied to him, even as things got hard.

He had to cut some $25 million out of the current year’s budget, and just had to put forward a budget for next year that makes more cuts to fix a $65 million shortfall – which grew to $89 million after a reduction in state aid.

All while running a district riven by plague.

And that is where things are now.

This is where the board has decided to dig its feet in.

After hectoring him at every turn, often opposing him for no evident reason, other than spite or as an assertion of power, the board is refusing to pass his budget. It melted down last night, in a video meeting where various board members not only refused to vote for necessary spending cuts, but also attacked him for demoting or firing their friends. They all dug in for their sacred cows.

They clearly had no clue, about the district’s finances, or the realities of state and federal budget problems. No matter what he put forward, they obstructed and argued, as they have for months, almost as if it was coordinated.

And this man who pledged to stay in Rochester at least five years may be at the end of his rope. Not because he is weak, not because he is a quitter, not because he is a prima donna, but because the board of education for the basest of reasons seems to be at war with him. And it is taking its toll.

The stress of board opposition has affected his health. He has developed high blood pressure since coming to Rochester, and was warned this week by his doctor that he risks heart disease in his current situation.

Because of stress.

Imposed on him by idiots, because he is standing up for Rochester’s children.

A man of native resilience and optimism, Terry Dade is described by a friend as “dejected and hopeless.”

And that has come to a head now, and lawyers are talking to lawyers.

And leaders are talking to leaders.

People from across Rochester are talking to officials from across the state to find a situation in which Terry Dade can be kept in service here.

In simplest terms, the school board needs to be removed from the equation.

A recent state budget deal calls for the appointment of a state monitor who would essentially do just that. The problem is that the coronavirus shutdown has stalled that process.

Another option is an executive order from the governor, which some have requested.

It is an unfortunate situation, and could be chalked up as just one more clown circus at Central Office, except for the fact that the futures of some of the poorest children in America are at stake. Without a basic quality education, none of society’s doors are open to a young person. Yes, poverty and race are factors, but they are also factors at other urban districts which have dramatically better educational outcomes for their students.

The problem in Rochester is the school board.

And that needs to go away.

And the superintendent needs to stay.

He is, in this situation, the essential man.

And we have to keep these jackasses from driving him away.

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