Clifford B. Janey arrived here in 1995 determined to raise student achievement in one of the poorest school districts in the nation. He was ousted as superintendent in 2002, buffeted by a fiscal crisis that made him highly unpopular and plunged the schools into political turmoil.
As Janey prepares for his job as superintendent of the District of Columbia's public schools, his experiences over nearly seven years in this declining industrial city in western New York will likely shape the educational vision he brings to the nation's capital.
Janey left an ambiguous legacy in New York's third-largest school district. He brought a sense of urgency and purpose to a system suffering from abysmal test scores, crumbling facilities and pervasive hopelessness. But the improvements in student performance during his tenure were modest and graduation rates remained low, according to more than a dozen interviews and a review of records here.
Where supporters believed him to be determined, cerebral and idealistic, detractors viewed him as stubborn, aloof and impractical. But even his fiercest opponents do not question his intelligence and his almost fervent commitment to children and their educational achievement.
"In terms of academic and programmatic vision, he has it -- but you've also got to manage a mammoth institution," said Rochester Mayor William A. Johnson Jr., a former ally who became Janey's most outspoken critic. "This was not some penny ante, picayune organization. You've got to have more than vision."
But Bolgen Vargas, president of the city's Board of Education from 1998 to 2002, said that Janey brought an infectious enthusiasm for urban education. "He had the skills and background to put in place a comprehensive educational plan for a district that was yearning for it," Vargas said.
Janey was hired in July 1995 from the Boston public school system, where over a 21-year career he rose from middle school reading teacher to chief academic officer, the system's top instructional leader.
When he arrived in Rochester, the 36,000-student system was in crisis. Violence was an almost everyday occurrence. Academic standards at two schools -- Benjamin Franklin High School, a desolate complex whose enrollment had fallen from 4,000 to fewer than 1,000, and an elementary school -- were so low that the state education department had threatened to close them down.
School performance often matches economic conditions. Each decade since World War II, this city on the shores of Lake Ontario has seen middle-class residents leave for the suburbs as once-secure manufacturing jobs vanished.
About one-fourth of Rochester's 220,000 residents live in poverty. Roughly 80 percent of children are eligible for federally subsidized lunches, compared with about two-thirds in the District.
Most agree that Janey's first two years here were rough. Although Boston has more students, Janey had not previously run an entire system. Rochester's schools, at the time he left, had a $561.8 million budget and more than 6,000 employees.
Janey's relations with the powerful Rochester Teachers Association initially were poor. Tensions came to a boil in 1997, when a raucous teachers meeting nearly turned into a melee, with Janey calling the police to try to have the union's president, Adam Urbanski, arrested. Urbanski, in turn, prepared for a vote of no confidence against Janey.
From these inauspicious circumstances, an unlikely but enduring friendship emerged. The two were born on the same date, June 28, 1946: Janey into a tough public housing building in Boston's Roxbury section, Urbanski in a small town in Communist Poland. They came to form an alliance that led to three successful contract negotiations.
Janey agreed to reduce class sizes, a longstanding goal of the union, and support a one-year mentoring program for newly certified teachers. The union agreed to allow parental involvement in evaluating teacher performance and to cooperate with reform efforts at several schools.
Janey's list of academic initiatives is long. To address the low graduation rate, he gave students more flexibility -- three to five years -- to complete their high school requirements. He introduced the rigorous International Baccalaureate program at Wilson Magnet High School, now regarded as one of the nation's most academically demanding.
Rather than abandon the aged Franklin school, Janey transformed it into three "career high schools" and opened an elementary and a middle school, both based on the Montessori method.
Franklin's teachers had to reapply for their jobs -- a decision the union supported -- and many did not make the cut. "It was a gutsy move," said Kim J. Dyce Faucette, now the school system's chief of staff.
At the elementary school level, Janey focused relentlessly on literacy. And the proportion of Rochester's fourth-graders scoring at or above grade level on state English tests rose from 24 to 47 percent between the 1998-99 and 2001-02 school years.
Among older students, however, performance remained poor. Last year, only 18 percent of eighth-graders met or exceeded statewide standards in reading.
The high dropout rate persisted. For every 100 Rochester ninth-graders in 1996, there were only 29 seniors three years later, according to John M. Klofas, a criminologist who has studied the city's schools.
Both Rochester and the District have large proportions of disabled students who require special education. In 2002, Janey persuaded a federal judge to terminate a 1983 agreement governing the city's special education students.
"To his credit, Dr. Janey really focused attention on actual outcomes for regular and special-ed students," said Jonathan Feldman, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Office of Rochester. He added, however, that he did not believe those outcomes improved much.
Janey, in a telephone interview yesterday, said he set high expectations for academic progress. "I'm critical of myself about not achieving those benchmarks," he said, referring to his academic goals. He added that he believed that the system made the most progress possible given students' social and economic disadvantages.
Despite the challenges, most said they believe Janey would have stayed were it not for a budget crisis that began in 2001. By that fall, the schools faced a cash-flow crisis approaching $50 million.
Between 1995 and 2002, the tax value of assessed property in Rochester fell by almost 15 percent, from $5.6 billion to $4.8 billion, while the city's share of the school system's budget remained at about $126 million a year. The school system is prohibited from independently levying taxes, and a growing proportion of the city's budget was going to schools just to maintain spending levels.
Robert E. Brown, a school board member since 1998, said Janey's aides failed to anticipate sharp increases in gasoline prices and health insurance premiums, among other costs, but he does not blame Janey personally.
Johnson, however, said that Janey refused to make cuts before the start of the 2001-02 school year, despite projections that expenses would outpace revenue. "We could no longer spare the schools," the mayor said. "We were making cuts in every other department."
By early 2002, it became clear that the school district had dipped into its reserves to cover operating expenses. Janey cut the school system's staff by 4 percent, mostly through attrition, and managed to avoid laying off instructional staff. But public acrimony among school board members and a stream of negative newspaper editorials took their toll.
"The environment got so toxic," said Vargas, the former school board president. "They were not dealing rationally with the situation."
Brown said, "It escalated totally out of hand, the flames being constantly fanned by Bill Johnson."
Vargas, Brown and Janey's other supporters on the board crafted a buyout of the remaining two years on Janey's contract. When the termination of the contract was announced at Franklin High School in May 2002, a large crowd burst into applause. Children held up signs asking, "Where did you hide the money, Janey?" even though there was no evidence that funds were spent improperly.
Johnson, who headed the Urban League of Rochester before being elected the city's first black mayor in 1993, said he was frustrated by Janey's reluctance to make budget cuts.
Johnson described Janey's attitude as, " 'We are doing God's work here, trying to educate poor urban children, and if you can't accept that, then you are obstructing that.' That wears thin after a while."
The city's schools remain in dire fiscal straits. Officials announced Thursday that 200 layoffs might be possible.
"To some degree, Cliff has been vindicated because the problems have been proven to be far more structural than the cause of any one individual," Johnson said.
"But I'm not willing to excuse the fact that he had the knowledge and the skills to take the steps that could have set the district on the right path. I just don't think he had the will to do it."
Janey, in the interview, said that making budget cuts in the middle of the 2001-02 school year would have disrupted student learning.
He said he "squirreled away money" into the system's reserve funds when the economy was booming in the late 1990s and said he did make difficult budget cuts, including closing day-care centers for the children of teenage students.
As part of his termination package, Janey received $260,000 and a commitment by the school board not to publicly criticize him in the future. Johnson unsuccessfully sued the school board, arguing that the board could have dismissed Janey "for cause" and avoided paying any severance.
Janey moved to New York to take a job at Scholastic Inc., an educational publisher.
Johnson, a Howard University graduate who has two grandchildren in the D.C. public schools, said he harbors no ill will toward Janey.
Asked whether he wished Janey well, the mayor responded: "I do. For the sake of my two grandchildren, I absolutely do."