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Transition to interim leader underway

Bolgen Vargas has little more than a month left as Rochester City School District superintendent, but he is keeping his focus on the future.

Vargas has been working with incoming interim superintendent Daniel Lowengard on a transition to ensure that the focus he has taken with the district will continue. At the same time, Vargas is leaving his suggestions for some important steps he thinks are necessary for the future.

Vargas said he believes the course he has set for the district—with a strong focus on early education, addressing summer learning loss and stressing literacy by third grade—will continue to improve outcomes after his tenure concludes.

“In the end, leadership is about doing what is best in the long run,” he said. “These are problems that we didn’t get into overnight.”

The district still faces serious problems, Vargas said, chiefly the low performance among students coupled with declining enrollment and unsustainable spending and resources.

Vargas announced in October his intention to step down at the end of December, leaving six months before the completion of his contract. He will be replaced by Lowengard, who previously served as superintendent in Syracuse and Utica.

Lowengard has been traveling to Rochester often in the past weeks, meeting with Vargas and other key district officials as they prepare for the official transition. Lowengard noted that his learning curve must be short, as there are many pressing issues facing the district.

“There are a lot of things that will need to be addressed,” he said, adding that the decline in enrollment could lead to some difficult decisions regarding building needs.

“There will be a big balancing act with the building project and determining exactly what we need to do,” he said. “We need to find the right number of teachers and administrators for that number of students and make decisions regarding that. This is about making the best decisions for the future, not just the next six months or one year.”

Vargas is suggesting other changes to improve safety in the district, including alternative schools for students with social and behavioral difficulties as well as a setting for students with significant mental health needs.

The transition takes place under additional pressure from the Rochester Teachers Association, which has passed a resolution calling for Vargas to leave his position immediately. The resolution cited a rapidly deteriorating climate for teaching and learning, stating that “many RCSD schools are out of control and represent a dangerous environment for all.”

The union noted an increase in assaults on teachers, which are up nearly 150 percent from the same time last year.

“We have assaults on teachers every day, and meanwhile the district has put the word out to schools that they should not suspend kids if they can help it,” said Adam Urbanski, RTA president.

Urbanski said the union fears that the district is going to wait for a serious incident or a teacher to be badly hurt before acting. He added that the resolution is not meant as an “anti-Bolgen Vargas” measure, but said, “if he’s not going to do something, we think they should get someone else who will.”

Urbanski said he has received no formal response from the board, and he believes it is clear the board is not going to act on the union’s resolution.

For his part, Vargas has some criticism for the role the unions have played in the district’s low performance.

“The unions will have to be more flexible and better at collaborating to achieve results,” he said.

There are other factors in play while RCSD prepares for its new interim leader, including the district’s relationships with community groups. ROC the Future, a group of local non-profit and government leaders committing to helping the district around key initiatives like attendance and college readiness, is preparing to continue its work, but leaders are planning to work with Lowengard during his transition.

The group’s alliance director, Jackie Campbell, plans to meet with Lowengard in December to discuss the group’s role in the transition and the work it has been doing. Jennifer Leonard, chair of ROC the Future, noted that Lowengard already is familiar with the Strive community partnership program in Cincinnati on which ROC the Future is based.

“We’re very encouraged that we can make a smooth transition,” Leonard said.

She noted that ROC the Future’s attendance group has met with Vargas, who gave his assurances that the direction of the district will remain unchanged throughout the transition. Keeping the work going without a hiccup is important given the strides ROC the Future has made in partnership with the district, she added.

“In the case of the attendance initiative, there is great depth both in the district and in community-level support with the network that makes that work happen,” Leonard said. “Last year there was a nearly 11 percentage drop in chronic absence in the 13 target schools, and that was enough to really change attendance figures across the whole district. That is well underway and we should continue to gain more traction as it continues.”

Leonard also recognized Vargas for the importance he placed on community partnerships, helping lay the groundwork for ROC the Future.

“His viewpoint has always been that the district can’t do it alone and that the community was a very important element in ensuring continued support for RCSD students and their needs,” she said.

As Lowengard prepares to take over the helm at RCSD, the search for a permanent replacement for Vargas has already started. Van White, RCSD board president, said the board members are still deciding how the search process will take shape, noting that they may opt to hire a search firm but have not yet reached a final decision.

“We haven’t concluded whether we will hire a search firm, and one of the reasons that we can’t say for sure is that we think there is enough talent in our community and beyond that we are aware of that we could identify Dr. Vargas’s successor without a firm,” he said.

White said there already have been three inquiries from sitting superintendents in districts in and around Monroe County. William Cala, former superintendent of the Fairport Central School District who served as interim superintendent for RCSD in part of 2007 between the departure of Manuel Rivera and arrival of Jean-Claude Brizard, has also publicly expressed some interest in the position.

White did not give an exact time frame for the search, but noted that if advertisements for the position are placed in January, it should give the board more than enough time to identify and hire a candidate by the end of June.

Vargas and Lowengard are already doing work to prepare for the transition to a permanent superintendent as well. Lowengard said that in their meetings so far, the two have been “building information for the next person” so that many of the transition steps will not have to be repeated.

White acknowledged that it may be discouraging for many in the community to be going through another superintendent transition, but said that the tenure of the past RCSD superintendents has actually beaten the national average for urban districts, which is roughly three years.

He added that research on urban districts has shown leadership transitions are not as disruptive as many believe them to be.

“The Brookings Institution did a study on the length of service of a superintendent, and the conclusion was that the number of years a superintendent serves doesn’t impact outcomes,” he said. “In fact, another study from the University of Chicago showed that the people with the most impact in a district are those (closest) to the students, the teachers, principals and parents. The superintendent is literally and physically the furthest away from the students.”

White said the most important part of a transition is maintaining stability in programs, not leadership.

“One of the mistakes in urban school district leadership is when a new superintendent comes in, they go to the flavor-of-the-month approach,” he said. “So they upend the apple cart and the people closest to the students end up going through all these changes.”

That will not happen in Rochester, he said.

“The board of education is promising programmatic continuity,” he said. “We will not abandon those things Dr. Vargas is doing, and we will continue to push extended day and extended learning and the focus on attendance and literacy by third grade. Those will continue on.”

11/27/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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