Carolee Albert is helping her six grandchildren get through the Rochester School District, so she's obviously interested in the district's fate.

And while she's watching the race for mayor closely, she shrugs off suggestions that the next city leader can significantly affect the struggling school system.

At best, she hopes, the next mayor can clean up crime, get truant teenagers off the streets and give schools the funding they need to be successful.

She said before a parents' meeting at Freddie Thomas High School last week that she wants the mayor to collaborate and "back up what the schools already have in place."

The role of Rochester's next executive in educational decisions is a debated and controversial issue as the five candidates campaign in advance of a Sept. 13 Democratic primary and Election Day on Nov. 8.

While some schools have shown signs of improvement and leaders have rallied behind Superintendent Manuel Rivera, the city is hampered by a stigma that the district is failing.

And that, some officials say, pushes young families and companies out to the suburbs, which hurts the city's economy.

In Rochester, the mayor doesn't have control over the district, except for proposing how much aid the city will give to schools each year. He or she can't change policy, hire or fire staff or direct district spending.

But the mayoral candidates are constantly dogged by questions about schools.

They offer solutions — ranging from Democrat Wade Norwood's proposal for mayoral control of schools to Democrat Tim Mains' plan to provide more city resources to impoverished toddlers so they enter school on par with their peers.

Whatever specifics the candidates may have, one theme rings constantly through the community: The next mayor must improve cooperation between City Hall on Church Street and district headquarters three blocks away on Broad Street.

"The mayor clearly can play a critical role in how we as a community are supporting children and families 24/7," Rivera said. "And the schools are a key part of that process. So we have to work closely together."

Norwood, Mains, Robert Duffy and Chris Maj are vying for the Democratic nomination in the primary. The winner, along with third-party candidates, will face Republican John Parrinello in the general election.

Mixed results

A community task force released a report Tuesday on the district, stressing how vital schools are to Rochester's success. The report calls for greater community involvement, including 10,000 volunteers to mentor students. The mayor should appoint a committee to oversee the program, said the task force. "The community at large must understand and believe in a passionate way that a strong school system makes a stronger community," the panel said.

Rochester's crime rate usually ranks tops in the state and job losses in recent years have been higher than the national average. But the district's struggles to improve test scores and reduce its dropout rate are just as critical, some officials said.

"The key to solving violence and bringing in more jobs is education," said Rochester Institute of Technology President Albert Simone, who headed the task force. "If we don't solve the K-12 education problem," the city can't solve other problems.

City schools have had successes. Newsweek this year ranked Wilson Magnet High School as the 27th-best high school in the country. And test scores have improved, including in English and math.

But serious troubles persist. About half of incoming ninth-graders don't graduate in four years, the lowest rate of the state's big-city districts. The state also named the district one of 12 outside New York City as a "district in need of improvement," the lowest rating.

Garfield Taylor, 44, doesn't put the onus on the mayor to improve schools. He'd rather have the next mayor focus on crime, job development and youth services.

"The mayor can only be of guidance to the schools," said Taylor, who has a child at Edison Technical and Occupational Education Center. "A mayor can't control the cops and the schools at the same time."

Mayoral control

Democratic candidate Wade Norwood thinks he can. He proposes a takeover of city schools.

Under his proposal, the seven-member school board would still be elected, but the mayor would hire the superintendent. The mayor also would have final say over the district's finances.

Mayoral control has been viewed as a success in some cities, including New York and Chicago. But over the years, the idea has gotten mixed reactions from local leaders, the state Legislature and Gov. George Pataki.

Still, Norwood, a city councilman, says it should be pursued.

"Is there a lot on the mayor's plate? Is there not a broad breadth and diversity of issues? Yes," he said. "But at no point can these educational issues not be on the mayor's agenda."

The other candidates disagree.

Mains, a city school principal, said the district is improving and gaining better focus. Changing management wouldn't make sense. "I don't need to tell the superintendent how to run the system," said Mains, who also serves on City Council. "He knows how to run the system."

When William A. Johnson Jr. first ran for Rochester mayor in 1993, he pitched an aggressive education plan, including greater management of schools.

Yet Johnson ended up sparring with the district over money and leadership and admits he couldn't accomplish what he set out to do. Johnson, who is retiring after 12 years in office, said mayoral control — which he has proposed on and off during this tenure with little fanfare — would make the district more accountable.

The city's biggest expenditure in its roughly $400 million budget is the $119 million it gives to schools, Johnson said. Yet City Hall has no control over how the money is spent.

"One hundred nineteen million flows out of your budget and you can't say boo about it," he said. "It's very frustrating."

Johnson said that Norwood's proposal doesn't go far enough. He said the mayor also should appoint school board members, as in Boston, Chicago and New York City. "If you don't get total control, forget it."

But Maria Behncke, Rochester-area coordinator for the Alliance for Quality Education, a nonprofit education advocacy group, said mayoral control could take away parental involvement and splinter district management.

"If we centralize things even more, it may be harder and harder for parents to be heard," she said.

Mayoral control could be effective in cities with indecisive leadership, Rivera said. But he doesn't see the need here.

"I'm accountable for what we do here in the district," he said. "The mayor, I think, can assume a greater role of accountability of how we serve children and families in a much more comprehensive, integrated way than we do now."

The proposals

Duffy, who retired as police chief in March to run for mayor, said the city should have a stronger truancy policy and a superintendent's leadership council, which would coordinate children's initiatives among local groups.

"We have so many programs, but a large number of them are not connected," he said. "The mayor has the ability to do that with the power of his office, and that's what I intend to do."

Duffy suggests the district look into starting the school day later for older students, saying it may keep youths off the streets in the afternoons.

Norwood also wants to enact a stronger truancy program and has criticized Duffy for allowing a center for truant students to close while he was chief. Duffy counters that it was the school district that decided to close the Edgerton Recreation Center when it revamped its attendance policies a few years ago.

A focal point of Mains' campaign is his Rochester Children's Initiative, which he says would provide additional city services to children from birth until age 3 when they enter preschool. As a principal, Mains said children living in poverty too often come to school developmentally behind.

He said the proposal would complement Rivera's plan for a Rochester Children's Zone, an initiative that would target services to neighborhoods with the greatest need. Mains would also appoint a City Hall official to work as a liaison between city government and the school system.

Mains said he would help the district "in a way that says, 'How do I make sure the schools are getting the resources they need?'"

Maj, a 26-year-old, first-time candidate, said students should get greater say in the district, including having a larger role on the school board.

Parrinello, meanwhile, argues that the next mayor shouldn't meddle in school affairs. As mayor, he would focus on bringing jobs to Rochester and cutting crime.

But he also wants to push the district for a school uniform policy for elementary schools and a strict dress code in higher grades.

Robert Davey, 62, has a child attending Franklin High School. He hopes the next mayor can simply end the bickering between City Hall and the school district.

"The administration needs to come alongside the schools," he said. "It's sort of City Hall against the schools. There's no cooperative force."