Rochester City School District superintendent Bolgen Vargas—who last week said he will step down at the end of 2015, six months before the end of his contract—received failing marks from the plurality of respondents to this week’s RBJ Daily Report Snap Poll.
However, the RCSD board of education received even worse grades from respondents for its performance during Vargas’ tenure, with more than half assigning a failing grade.
For Vargas’ overall performance as superintendent, 9 percent gave him an A, compared with 31 percent who handed him an F. By comparison, the school board received an A from 1 percent and an F from 55 percent.
Vargas will remain through June as an adviser to the district’s new interim superintendent, former Syracuse Superintendent Daniel Lowengard. The school board plans to conduct a search for a permanent replacement.
Named interim superintendent in 2011 following the departure of former Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard, Vargas was hired on a permanent basis a year later. He pursued a three-phase plan to overhaul the district’s finances, revamp its culture and improve student performance, with a focus on attendance and early childhood education and literacy.
According to the latest state Education Department data, Rochester’s high school graduation rate for students who entered 9th grade in 2010 was 43.4 percent—the lowest rate among New York’s Big 5 districts.
Vargas came into open conflict with the school board this spring when his attorney notified the board its actions to limit his hiring and firing authority violated state law and the terms of Vargas’ employment contract. This fall, it became clear the board would not extend his contract.
Roughly 580 readers participated in this week’s poll, conducted Nov. 2 and 3.
How would you grade Bolgen Vargas’ overall performance as Rochester City School District superintendent?
How would you grade the overall performance of the Rochester City School District Board of Education during Vargas’ tenure?
For information on how the Snap Polls are conducted, click here.
These two strong entities must cooperate for the welfare of city school students. Did not happen and again we go back and start all over. What a shame how we have let this happen, over and over.
—Ted Voll Jr.
The school governance structure is dysfunctional. Vargas made huge strides in changing the district’s culture and priorities. I do not think that more turnover will help the district.
—Kate Kressmann-Kehoe, RCSD parent
While graduation rate and reading results are the most disappointing, I’m confounded by the inability to provide dramatic changes required for children living in poverty. In School 17 where I volunteer in the Help Me Read program, there’s only one social worker for 700 students, and this is the first year a reading specialist was added. There’s a need to provide greater support for children who are victims or who have witnessed violent crime so they can focus on learning.
—Karen Kall Coffey
The board is made up of citizens, but I am not sure they are good role models. All of them should be paying taxes on time. All of them should be role models in their behavior. I think that the interim is no better since he was not a particular success in Syracuse. Let’s find some real leaders for our children.
—Suzanne Mayer, Sirius Change LLC
The student performance of Rochester city schools is a disgrace to our entire community. The blame is to be shared by the school board, the superintendent, student parents, the students themselves and our entire community, which tolerates the poor performance. Other school districts in cities with similar levels of poverty are obtaining significantly better results. I don’t know what the answer is, but the current leadership is a major part of the problem. Where is Mayor Warren’s voice on this issue? It should be her main priority. Without good schools the city cannot survive, and the middle class will continue to flee the city once their children reach school age.
—Michael Lebowitz, real estate broker
Mr. Vargas had bold ideas, and that is just what we need. Unfortunately the administrative jungle and our meddling, unsupportive Board of Education blocked many of his ideas. Who will be led to the slaughter next?
Vargas should have been terminated a long time ago. There have been no improvements under him, and the graduation rate remains despicable. The entire RCSD management needs a major overhaul.
—Rick Corey, Penfield
The accomplishments of Dr. Vargas seem to be mentioned as a footnote. He led successful efforts to increase attendance, raise reading levels in the primary grades, and increase instructional time for at-risk students—all of which likely show up in graduation rates years later, just not now, when tension between him and the school board garners all the attention and energy.
The school board and superintendent have failed to manage the school district, allowing the unions to run the show with the predictable result of laziness, inefficiency, corruption and waste. There is another category you did not ask the community to rate, however, which is the collection of parents, family, guardians and others who allow their kids to be absent from school, unprepared, disrespectful of teachers and otherwise disruptive in class (when they bother to show up for class). The best-run school will still be dysfunctional if the students and parents don’t care and don’t perform.
The school board should accept outside help from local industry leaders to help in the degradation of the school system.
Through Rochester City School District’s continuous 25-year downward slide, with multiple superintendents and multiple school board members, there has been one constant: Adam Urbanski, and it’s time for a change. If our city school teachers care as much about students’ education as they profess, they will recognize it’s time for new cooperative, collaborative leadership.
—Alan Ziegler, Futures Funding Corp.
Results count, not excuses! Admittedly a tough job and even tougher group to teach. But at the end of the day they should both be fired and give back money to the system as they didn’t earn it!
When you hire a superintendent, you have to let him or her work. This board micromanaged to death.
—Joe Fabetes, Rochester
Our city has thrown more money at the education system than most of the country to create an education system that ranks as one of the worst. You really don’t need a poll to figure that out.
Both are proven losers!
—Daniel Mossien, architect
The real change needs to come at the leadership of the Rochester Teachers Association; Dr. Urbanski has clearly been there too long and his ideas and leadership is one of combat rather than developing consensus to get things done.
The current school system is a failure and cannot be fixed if the parents of the children don’t care or don’t want to get involved. Education is so important and is a big gift. Only 44 percent get through and graduate in the city; how can it be anything but a failure? We keep spending more and the failure rate just keeps growing. I wish University of Rochester all the best with East High.
Regardless of how anyone grades Dr. Vargas’ performance, he is the odds-on favorite to be named the undersecretary of education working with state Commissioner of Education John King.
—Jerry McCabe, Irondequoit
The board of education has failed. Until we start supporting the teachers and their needs for control in the classroom, how can we expect the kids to learn? If they are too busy bullying the teachers, using their cellphones, videoing what happens in the class and allowing just enough to be seen to have it taken out of context, how can we think the system will work? Alone the willful disrespect for the teachers and the education system that some of the kids have is enough to make any one run screaming. These absentee parents and the board of education need to be educated as to what really happens in the classroom. Get the cellphones out of the class. Put in video monitors and discipline the kids. Don’t send them home or expel them; send them to phys-ed and make them do laps till all the energy is expelled and they can sit in a class and focus on learning. The board has failed the teachers and the kids—it’s time for a change.
There are two critical things to get rid of poverty. Importantly, one of those things is not money. In the first 50 years in the War on Poverty, the U.S. has spent more than $22 billion, and the poverty rate is the same. The two things needed to prevent poverty are waiting until after you are married to have children and graduating from high school. Bolgen Vargas has left us down mightily. Maybe we should have spent more money.
—Clifford Jacobson M.D.
Never confuse effort with results. Results are what matter, and the results are awful! Mr. Vargas has unfortunately failed. The old model does not work. Remember when (Rochester Teachers Association president Adam) Urbanski said 30 years ago that more money for teachers would solve the problem? That failed, too! We need a bold new leader with the power to make real changes. Fire bad teachers, reward good ones, motivate students and their parents. Otherwise we are spinning our wheels and going nowhere.
— George Thomas, Ogden
One can’t institute changes when the school board and the teachers union won’t support the changes. It isn’t productive for the Rochester schools to be continually changing superintendents. The people on the Rochester City School District Board of Education should have term limits, it should be volunteer; the residents of the city should vote on the budget for the school yearly. There are multiple socio-economic issues affecting the students in the city schools that don’t get addressed, maybe turning around the graduation rates. Unless the school board and the teachers union can agree to change, nothing will get accomplished.
Vargas is the fifth or sixth super in a bit over a decade, as I recall. He seems to have been the first one who actually cared about the kids in the schools and not his own career. The RCSD board is a recurring joke, but Vargas was naive to think he could deal with them and the unions (same president for 20 years). It’s not a super who is the cause of the problem or the savior, folks.
—D. Giambattista, Fairport
The Rochester City School District Board of Education, under the direction of Mr. Vargas, gets an "F" grade for performance. Performance has to be measured in terms of successful education of the students—period. Students should not be passed through our educational system without mastering work at each grade level. Without mastery, there is no ability to learn more sophisticated concepts that are built up year after year. Our school district is not meeting the needs of the students, nor those of the taxpayers. At the least, the school district should stop the battling with the charter schools—learn to work together instead of adhering to a union party line that does not value the charter schools with independent teachers. We cannot continue to be at the bottom of the NYS educational rankings and hope to have a thriving community.
How is it possible to give the board and Vargas anything but a failing grade? RCSD continues to hold the bottom position in graduation rates in New York State major metropolitan districts. Don’t know what his credentials were to get this position, but command of the English language wasn’t one of them. Listening to him speak is like calling Microsoft for help and getting a person whose sixth or seventh language is English. How can someone like this be effective?
—Art Elting, Palmyra
Dr. Vargas had an impossible job. Let us not throw him alone under the bus. What can be worse than a graduation rate of less than 40 percent and a 25 percent absence rate for the first day of school this year? How about we clear out ALL of West Broad Street, divide and delegate the dead overhead in the city schools and have the suburban or even rural schools handle the work for the betterment of our entire region. Who thinks that several departments, for example HR, cannot be improved if it was taken out of West Broad? Me. I think it. Who thinks that if the neighborhood parents of the students have much, much, much more say on how their own schools are run—which includes taking the further responsibility for those parents who do not tow their own weight while their kids hold back other kids who want to take advantage of school – would bring up the quality of city schools? Me. I think it. Who thinks that hiring another Dr. Vargas and keeping the do-nothing West Broad is just going to be more of the same? Me. I think it.
11/6/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.