The mayor of Rochester, N.Y., and six city residents have taken the unusual step of asking the state commissioner of education to overturn the severance deal between the city’s school board and former Superintendent Clifford B. Janey.
In addition to paying Mr. Janey $260,800, the remainder of the salary he would have earned under his contract, the school board agreed to issue a favorable recommendation letter to any of Mr. Janey’s future employers.
The agreement between Mr. Janey and the board allows only Bolgen Vargas, the board’s immediate past president, to discuss Mr. Janey’s performance during his seven- year tenure in the 39,000-student district.
The board voted to part ways with Mr. Janey in May because of the “toxic environment” the mayor had created in the district, Mr. Vargas said in an interview. Mr. Janey left the post in late August.
“Clifford Janey’s performance was outstanding,” said Mr. Vargas. “This is a very sad time for Rochester.”
While the New York State Education Department receives hundreds of school board appeals a year, Thomas Dunn, a spokesman for the department, said he had never before seen one in which the mayor of a city challenged a severance agreement between a school board and a departing superintendent.
The letter of reference, which is signed by Mr. Vargas on behalf of the seven-member Rochester school board, credits Mr. Janey with improving student test scores, decreasing dropout rates, and consistently presenting balanced budgets to the board.
Mayor William A. Johnson Jr., who did not return phone calls last week, has characterized the reference letter as a lie, according to his lawyer, Richard Dollinger.
“The overall picture that is created by the separation package is inaccurate,” contended Mr. Dollinger, who is also a state senator. Both he and the mayor are Democrats.
Neither Mr. Janey nor his lawyer could be reached for comment last week.
Budget Role Defended
The petitioners are seeking to have the severance money repaid to the district, the reference letter eliminated, and the “gag order” on the board members lifted, according to their Sept. 20 appeal.
Citing a $45 million midyear budget deficit that arose last spring, the appeal claims that Mr. Janey was responsible for mismanaging the district’s budget, which is $497.4 million for 2002-03. The appeal also blames him for the turnover of four budget directors and four chief financial officers in five years.
In addition, it faults Mr. Janey for consistently low student test scores in the district, and it charges that he improperly appointed district employees.
“I think it is important that we keep the truth out there, and we don’t try to rewrite history through a recommendation letter,” said Hans DeBruyn, one of the petitioners and a parent of three grown children who attended the city’s schools.
Although the district’s budget deficit was significant, Mr. Janey was able to remedy the financial problems, said Adam Urbanski, the president of the 3,800-member Rochester Teachers Association, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
Mr. Urbanski attributed the district’s budget woes to the downturn in the economy and the terrorist attacks in September of last year, which led the state to channel funding to New York City for disaster relief.
“Ironically, for all of the blame that is being fixed on Clifford Janey, he managed to avoid gutting the system,” he said.
Mr. Janey was able to close the financial gap, end the school year with $11 million in cash reserves, and propose a balanced budget for the current school year without freezing teachers’ salaries or significant layoffs, the union president noted.
The board has appointed Manuel Rivera, the former chief development officer of Edison Schools Inc. and a previous superintendent in Rochester, as interim superintendent while it searches for a permanent replacement.
Meanwhile, Mr. Janey, a former chairman of the board of directors of the Council of the Great City Schools, has been named as a finalist for Florida’s new K-12 chancellor position.
The New York state commissioner’s decision on the Rochester petition could take three to six months, according to Mr. Dunn of the education department.
That timeline is too long for some people in Rochester.
State Assemblyman David Gantt, a Democrat who represents part of Rochester, has publicly urged the commissioner to rule on the appeal quickly, a request Mr. Urbanski said he supports.
“I believe that we should tone down this acrimony and move on with the business of educating kids and focusing on instruction,” Mr. Urbanski said.