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Vargas Resigns RCSD, Balance of Power a Key Issue

By Rodney Brown



Tuesday, Rochester City School District Superintendent Bolgen Vargas announced he will resign his post effective at the end of December.

The move comes six months prior to the expiration of Vargas’ contract with the district, and some are speculating the school board’s “new attitude” regarding the balance of power between the board and school administration may have a lot to do with it.

But, tension between the school board and Vargas is nothing new. Earlier this year, Vargas initiated legal proceedings against the board after they voted to limit his ability to hire and fire personnel within certain exempt groups.

However, the issue appeared to have been settled over the summer, when Vargas stated he would not go on with the lawsuit.

In an interview with School Board President Van White earlier this month, White highlighted the commissioners’ “change of attitude” concerning accountability, as outlined in the board’s 2014 Year-End Report. According to White, the commissioners’ role and work is often misunderstood.

“This Board of Education looks at its role differently. We don’t look at ourselves as people sitting on our hands,” White said. “Generally speaking, school boards are very passive. They have these superintendents come in with fancy degrees, they tell the school board members what to do and we do them, not the reverse, which is what the law requires. We’re supposed to provide guidance to them (superintendents).”

“We are their supervisors, and we have not done that in light of chronic-historic failure,” White pointed out. “We are not Brighton or Pittsford. If your graduation rate is 97 percent, you could put it on cruise control, and let the superintendent direct you, but that’s not our history, or our path. We have a record of failure. In the course of chronic failure, we cannot continue down this path. We are not going to sit on our hands, and wait on the superintendent to tell us what to do.”

Page 10 of the report, “Enforcing Existing Board Policy,” states, “When a board of education approves a policy, for all intents and purposes, it’s the board articulating what it expects the local school district’s leadership to do.”

“For decades, the Rochester City school District Board of Education had passed many meaningful policies (26 to be exact), which were, unfortunately, largely ignored by leaders of the district. As a result, the goals and objectives of many well-intentioned Boards of Education were thwarted over the years.”

RCSD Board officials say, because of new accountability measures, the superintendent and his staff have been required to provide quarterly reports on the implementation status of each and every board policy.

“Now, the board and the community can be certain that policies are being enforced,” White said.

On the administrative side, the report mandates, “Every Tuesday morning, members of the board convene their leadership meetings with principals and school staff at different schools throughout the district. At those meetings, the parties discuss where the school is positioned, in relation to each of the performance areas, and where it needs to be.”

“The principals get grilled,” White added. “Traditionally, whatever the superintendent told us was happening at the school, we accepted it. Now, we have in place instrumental tools that demand accountability. In the past, boards didn’t solicit information, it was given to them. We are doing more managing, and more monitoring.”

According to board officials, the accountability measures will be  fulfilled through three baseline reports.

  1. The Finish Line Report: monitors each school’s progress in five key performance areas: student attendance, suspensions, and achievement on ELA and Math assessments, parental engagement, and graduation rate.
  2. The Pipeline Report: looks at schools, which are likely to be targeted by the State Education Department for closure.
  3. The Striking Distance Report: seeks to identify schools, which, if given a little “push,” can show the type of progress that could result in their removal from the state’s list of low-performing schools.

In response to the stringent accountability measures in the board’s 2014 Year-End Report, RCSD Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas said he didn’t believe there was any question regarding his accountability to the Board of Education, and ultimately to the students, families and staff members of city schools.

“I have worked hard to advance the district’s priorities, and I believe we have made significant progress as reflected in the 2015 State of Our Schools Address,” Vargas stated. “For example, four years ago we faced the sad reality that Rochester students received the least amount of instruction of any group of children in Monroe County. Today, no district in the area offers more learning time in full-day Pre-K, full-day Kindergarten, summer learning programs, and 13 schools with an expanded daily schedule. Our graduation rates are the highest they have been in six years, despite much more stringent requirements for earning a diploma.”

“I disagree with board members on specific resolutions that restrict the superintendent’s authority to hire his or her own senior leadership team, which I believe contradicts a state law passed by Assembly member Gantt,” Vargas said. “But, in no way have I questioned my accountability to the Board of Education, which has the authority to terminate my employment at any time.”

Former Syracuse School District Superintendent Dan Lowengard will serve as interim superintendent until the board can find a permanent replacement.

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