Things have been relatively quiet at the Rochester school district this summer. That ended over the weekend, though, with a letter from Superintendent Bolgen Vargas to school board members, telling them he had hired two new administrators – one of them a longtime district critic.
Patty Malgieri – former Rochester deputy mayor, former head of the Center for Governmental Research, currently president of the Hillside Work Scholarship Connection – will be Vargas’s chief of staff. Bill Ansbrow, the city’s director of management and budget, is the district’s chief financial officer.
Both Malgieri and Ansbrow are heavy-hitters, talented and extremely experienced, but it’s the Malgieri appointment that is getting the attention. During her time at CGR, she was skeptical of the district’s operations. And she was deputy mayor when Bob Duffy was pushing for mayoral control, something that got a strong – and successful – pushback from the school board and the teachers’ union.
School board members haven’t made any public statements about the appointments yet, but shortly after the Democrat and Chronicle broke the news, we started hearing reports that some board members were upset, because of Malgieri’s past attitude toward the district. They don’t have a vote on the superintendent’s top-level appointments, but if they’re unhappy, it could create tension between Vargas and the board. And it could make life miserable for Malgieri.
Teachers’ union president Adam Urbanski didn’t pull his punches when City’s Tim Macaluso asked him about the Malgieri appointment earlier this week. “Based on my experience with her at the Center for Governmental Research and City Hall,” Urbanski said, “I would not call her a friend of public education.”
Malgieri, Urbanski said, has been “a strong proponent of charter schools, privatization, and crushing unions rather than working with them.”
Urbanski tempered his remarks, though, by saying that Vargas – who hadn’t told him ahead of time about the appointment – has urged him to keep an open mind about Malgieri. Urbanski obviously likes Vargas, and he said he believes Vargas is intent on bringing the community together to help the district.
Vargas is on vacation this week and is turning down requests for interviews, so some important puzzle pieces are missing. For instance: what will be Malgieri’s duties? Plenty of things in the district need fixing – and lots of them are in Central Office. The audits done during Jean-Claude Brizard’s tenure contained some hair-raising, long-standing examples of poor policies and practices. Will Malgieri be in charge of fixing things like that?
For decades, business leaders have been among the district’s harshest critics, and some have charged that Urbanski is really co-superintendent. There was no such suspicion during Brizard’s years here; the two were in frequent conflict. But Urbanski’s enthusiastic support for the choice of Vargas as Brizard’s successor raised concerns in some quarters. So maybe Vargas feels that Malgieri can serve as a counterweight to Urbanski’s influence (perceived or otherwise).
Whatever the reasons for the Malgieri appointment, and whatever her job description, I think it’s a good move. Vargas recognizes that concentrated poverty is one of the district’s biggest challenges. He also knows that the district cannot do its job on its own. It will take heavy, expensive involvement by the entire community, particularly the business community. An important role for Malgieri could be to serve as Vargas’s entree to business leaders, helping bring them on board.
And by the way, Malgieri working on the inside may see things from a different perspective. It doesn’t mean she’ll turn into a patsy when it comes to high expectations for teachers. But if she gets out into the schools, if she listens to teachers, maybe she’ll learn what they’re facing – and maybe she’ll pass that on to business leaders.
I don’t want to be overly enthusiastic about this appointment. But it offers lots of potential, and I hope we won’t be disappointed with the outcome. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for the school board to take the advice Urbanski seems to be inclined to take: Keep an open mind.