Gathering at the Olmsted Lodge in Highland Park on Monday, Aug. 21, four candidates vying to become mayor of Rochester displayed their stances on the issues hitting one of the most rapidly evolving neighborhoods of the city. Sector 6, a coalition devised under the “Neighbors Building Neighborhoods” initiative, is home to Rochester’s largest employer, the University of Rochester, as well the incessantly hip South Wedge and Swillburg neighborhoods.
Among the economic, social, public safety and educational issues found in the sector, candidates Rachel Barnhart, James Sheppard, Alex White and Tony Micciche took starkly different views.
Under the weather, Mayor Lovely Warren was not present at the forum.
Starting off with opening statements, Micciche placed an emphasis on crime and a need for better handling of the school system. Throughout the forum, he focused on the low graduation rate in the Rochester City School District, which stood at 48 percent in 2016.
“We need to engage our schoolchildren more,” Micciche said. “What do you think these kids are doing when they’re not in school? Because I can guarantee they’re not out selling newspapers.”
While Micciche emphasized educational reform through use of truancy officers and punishment for youths caught skipping school, Green Party candidate Alex White approached the issue from an angle of positive reinforcement.
“What I suggest is we offer part-time summer jobs for all of our kids, at 20 hours per week,” White said. “Once they’re back in school, for each week they stay all five days, they receive a stipend from the city. We need to teach our kids that education has value, and this is a way to do it.”
Micciche, however, suggested encouraging outrage at the cost of the school district by showing taxpayers the annual cost of school upkeep.
“That way everyone can see the cost of failure,” Micciche said.
As far as economic development and gentrification, a hot button issue in a neighborhood home to the ambitious College Town project, Barnhart said it’s time for change in how we treat our neighborhoods.
“The University of Rochester is our largest employer, we love the U of R, but we shouldn’t roll over for them,” Barnhart said. “College Town is a perfect example of what can go wrong. Constantino’s left, it’s not walkable, it has an uninspired design.”
Rather than investing into local development, Barnhart suggested the University of Rochester should invest into public transportation, an expense which could serve to benefit not just staff and students, but the entire region.
“This is vital social equity,” Barnhart said.
For Sheppard, a former lieutenant in Sector 6 who emphasizes the massive cultural shift in the neighborhood since the late 1990s, the fight against gentrification needs to begin with regulating property taxes; he suggested flat rates throughout the city.
“You all want your values to go up, your houses are your biggest investments, but we can’t have property values going so high that it forces people out of neighborhoods,” Sheppard said.
The issue of economic integration stood as a focal point for Barnhart’s views, and she argued that neighborhoods and school districts which do not feature a healthy mix of low-, mid- and high-income residents are doomed to suffer.
“We know that when schools tip above 40 percent poverty, grades decline,” Barnhart said. “This is one of the biggest issues causing people to leave the city; they don’t want their children to go to city schools. If we keep creating dual track charter schools, no one is going to want to live here.”
According to ACT Rochester, the poverty rate for families with children under the age of 18 in Monroe County was 19.8 percent in 2016. For the City of Rochester, that number stood at 46.6 percent. In the pursuit of economic desegregation, both Barnhart and White advocated for a county-wide school district, though they noted it may be an unrealistic goal.
While differing on crucial points, all of the candidates did agree on one issue: the need for active community voices and neighborhood representation in City Hall.
“The city should recognize that neighborhoods have the right to make decisions, from beginning to end of every project,” White said. “If the Neighborhood of the Arts opposes a development, they should have the right to have a say.”
In promotion of the idea of better neighborhood representation, White suggested having nine district seats in City Council which represent nine specific neighborhoods of the City. The current City Council features five at-large seats and four district representatives, representing the northeast, northwest, south and east sections of the city, respectively.
“I am for you, the people, having as much say as possible,” White said.
Micciche echoed the need for community involvement and engagement, suggesting doing FDR-style fireside chats as well as keeping a completely open line of communication with the community.
“I don’t know everything; I need your help to get things done,” Micciche said.
Noting the varying needs of the neighborhoods of the city, Sheppard called on City Hall to understand the needs of each neighborhood.
“Different neighborhoods have different concerns and priorities,” Sheppard said. “It’s the responsibility of the city to train people to meet those.”
Emphasizing her career as a journalist, Barnhart insisted that transparency will be her utmost priority should she take office.
“I let the people in as much as a member of the press,” Barnhart said. “As mayor, I would be focused on continuing to let people in, and to have a say.”
The Democratic primary elections fall on Tuesday, Sept. 12, with the mayoral election on Tuesday, Nov. 7.