Later story with more details:
Organizers of a new all-girls charter school aiming to open in 2012 have been busy amassing supporters in the city of Rochester.
But they already have one high-profile local education leader behind their effort — City School District Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard, who also happens to be married to one of the new school's would-be founders.
Brizard makes no secret of his support for charter schools, saying that he wants to help more of the privately run programs open in the city school district. Now, K. Brooke Stafford-Brizard could lead one such school, drawing students and state money away from city schools and raising questions about a potential conflict of interest. "We have the vision and the passion and we're working on the application," said Laura Rebell Gross, who is partnering with Stafford-Brizard.
Stafford-Brizard and Gross have been working with the Young Women's Leadership Network, known nationally for opening the first single-sex charter school in the country. Gross also serves on the network's Board of Directors.
Gross and Stafford-Brizard must file an application with either the state education department or the SUNY system. Gross said they are currently working on an application.
Both Jean-Claude Brizard and Gross said they were trying to keep the proposal quiet until the women submitted the application. But word of the proposed school started circulating in the community after they hosted an informational meeting with a number of high-profile community leaders to try to win support for their effort several weeks ago.
The meeting occurred at the Brizards' house after the group went to see Waiting for Superman, a new documentary about the public school system that has been criticized for glorifying charter schools.
"They are working fast and furious and making some powerful connections in and around the city," Jean-Claude Brizard said in an e-mail.
Charter schools, which are run by private boards but paid for with public dollars, have always been somewhat controversial.
Supporters say that they give parents options and create competition that forces traditional public schools to do better, something especially important in school districts that have struggled to turn around failing programs. The federal Race to the Top program gives financial incentives to states that make it easier for charter schools to open, something that prompted New York state this year to relax its rules and enable more programs to open.
"It clearly, at least as it was presented, has been a very successful project in New York City," said Anne Kress, president of Monroe Community College who was at the informational meeting.
But research has shown that not all charter schools are effective, and the vast majority does not post better results than traditional public schools. Some are plagued by financial and organizational problems. And in high-poverty districts like Rochester, charter schools have been criticized for siphoning off the best students, whose parents are engaged enough to submit an application to a charter school.
Stafford-Brizard's involvement also raises questions about the role the superintendent might play helping get the school off the ground.
"It certainly raises the issue of whether it is a conflict of interest," said Dan Drmacich, a former principal with the city school district.
Although the city will not have any influence over the charter school's application, Brizard has said recently that he wants the district to offer the programs more support.
His wife's school could benefit from any of those incentives.
Stafford-Brizard did not respond to requests for comment, but candidly addressed the issue of her marriage to the superintendent at last month's meeting.
"She talks about it very freely," Gross said. "She's definitely doing this on her own and with her own connections.
"I have every confidence that it's going to be a wonderful school."
Stafford-Brizard has her own career in education research, including a doctoral degree in education from Columbia University.
She worked as the director of strategy and evaluation in the New York City school system and said when she moved to Rochester that she planned to look for work.
The Brizards have previously addressed the issue of her involvement with educational groups that do business with the school district.
Stafford-Brizard has done work with a consulting company run by former superintendent Manny Rivera that has a contract to offer tutoring services to struggling students.
When asked about the contract, Superintendent Brizard said that his wife is entitled to pursue her career, regardless of his position.TLANKES@DemocratandChronicle.com