The No Confidence Vote
In the last month, the teacher’s union in Rochester, New York, the Rochester Teacher’s Association (RTA) has built up to and started the process for a vote of no confidence in the Rochester City School District Superintendent, Jean-Claude Brizard.
The build up to this has been a long time coming, as rank-and-file teachers within schools have long expressed frustration with the none too subtle hostility and disregard received from Brizard’s administration, policies, and overall agenda. As a Broad Superintendent’s Academy alumni Brizard has brought the Broad-agenda into Rochester wholesale.
Having been within schools and reached out to the community locally I have communicated extensively with teachers, parents, and community members, especially given the important work we at the Community Education Task Force are building. Several revealing conversations with various concerned parties have proved insightful during our outreach.
One teacher that I spoke to and asked about his thoughts on the vote of no confidence responded saying, “I ask myself a simple question: has my job gotten easier or harder while he has been the superintendent and have kids benefited or been harmed as a result of his policies and leadership?” Given that, according to this teacher, the answer to the former question was no and the latter was that students have been harmed, his choice in the upcoming vote became clear.
Parents and community members have very similar expressions of opposition especially considering the disregard for open, transparent dialogue with parents. Several parents expressed continued frustration with the district’s unwillingness to take parent and community input feedback seriously. At a December School Board meeting in Rochester, parents, teachers and concern community members overwhelmingly rejected Brizard’s administrations’ unilateral attempts
to close schools without so much as a whisper to parents, staff, administration, or even the school board. Even by the Broad Foundation’s School Closure Guide, there is a firm advisement that a successful school closure process has to involve sufficient community feedback, engagement, and revision of plans.
Anti-Brizard/Broad agenda attitudes have gained traction among many of the parents I’ve organized and worked with in Rochester. When parents heard from the media that there was a proposed plan to close their child’s school rather than from Brizard or his administration, that angered and mobilized many parents. Some parents I work with have brought serious alternative proposals, ideas, and discussions to Brizard’s door only to leave feeling patronized, dismissed, and degraded. Frequently, parents, teachers, students, or community members who question or criticize Brizard’s agenda in any shape or fashion are thrown to the side as mere “noise” or “defenders of the status quo” (not a new rhetorical technique by any means).
This brings us to Brizard’s response via email to us teachers. Keep in mind, this email only came once the RTA’s Rep Assembly had unanimously voted to proceed with the vote of no confidence.
Dear Rochester Teachers:
Next week, I will be giving a “State of Our Schools” presentation to the community. This presentation will show the progress we have made as a district and the challenges we face as we work to improve our schools and support student achievement.
Know that the progress we have made and the increases in achievement we have realized are, ultimately, the result of the work you do each and every day in the classroom. What goes on in our schools is the most important factor influencing student success.
As superintendent, I must keep my focus on students, and I appreciate all of the teachers and other staff who are working to do the same. The idea of tension during contract negotiations is expected; the idea that our teachers do not trust my intentions saddens me. I cannot be successful without you, because our children cannot be successful without you.
I know I can do a better job of communicating with teachers. I also know that large numbers of teachers believe we are on the right track. I ask that you join me in exerting our energies on the battle to improve student performance, not the conflict between union and district leadership. The latter can, I believe, be resolved with the help of a mediator. The former can only be waged by working together toward the common goal of helping our students succeed.
Rochester City Public Schools | Superintendent
p: 585.262.8378 | e: email@example.com
I immediately began asking fellow teachers for their response to this email. The first response I enjoyed quite a bit from an outspoken fantastic teacher:
You wanna bash us and disrespect us and then act like you trickin yourself out to us teachers and our union in a phony email now that you’re concerned about your career is gonna convince of us anything? Too little, too late so keep it moving.
Another teacher, who grew up in Rochester’s urban Northeast section and has children in the district, stated,
We need to make clear that it’s not only Brizard’s style of leadership also known as ‘my way or the highway’ that needs to go but his entire agenda, which we as teachers and parents reject.
In response to this momentum, the local corporate media has attempted to circle the wagons around Brizard and his agenda (time for more teacher/organizer alternative media, anyone?) In an editorial response to the vote of no confidence and Brizard’s response email to teachers, the Democrat and Chronicle’s editors’ wrote:
The upcoming “no confidence” vote on the Rochester schools superintendent provides a teachable moment for Jean-Claude Brizard.
Already, he’s acknowledged to teachers, through an e-mail, that he can do a better job of communicating with them. That’s a good start.
But Brizard must make this a top priority because he needs teachers and the community on his side if his reform efforts are to be successful. Many of those reforms, such as how teachers are evaluated and paid, are controversial.
Add in that contract negotiations are at impasse, and naturally teachers feel uneasy. That’s what lack of information does; it breeds confusion and fear. And when the bulk of the teachers’ information is coming from their union, then, of course, teachers are going to side with it. But union leaders are concerned mostly with giving up power, and they can preserve their power by keeping members scared about changes.
That’s why Brizard must become much more accessible to teachers, by holding regular forums for teachers where they can quiz him directly on his ideas, and by sending regular e-mail updates. He needs to listen to teachers; most likely he’ll get some good ideas.
But it’s not just teachers that Brizard needs to reach, it’s parents, too. Brizard should visit churches to talk about improving children’s education. Upcoming Black History Month events provide a perfect opportunity to be approachable. Of course, Brizard can’t be everywhere. He should tap his top lieutenants to get out, too.
Finally, community and business leaders who have backed mayoral control can’t be silent. They should speak up publicly in favor of Brizard and his work.
Poor communication can derail reform efforts, just ask Michelle Rhee, the ousted Washington, D.C., schools chief. Brizard must embrace lessons learned there, too.
This unashamed championing of both Brizard’s privatization agenda and mayoral control did not slip by teachers, parents and community members. Several parent allies approached me quickly after receiving this story in the paper, passionately proclaiming (paraphrased from conversation),
Overall, it’s not a matter of a lack of information that ‘breeds confusion and fear’ in this situation. It’s his leadership and game plan itself that has turned people off. What these media hacks don’t want to admit is that misinformation, improper communication, and the resulting confusion is not by accident, it’s on purpose. If people don’t know or are confused as to the facts, it’s easier to mislead them and knock their efforts to organize against you when you’ve got power.
As this vote of no confidence goes forward, there is much to be learned and gained. As part of the “war for the soul of our schools,” as allies have branded this struggle, we can’t afford to let down our guard nor let these opportunities slip away.