URBAN JOURNAL: Vargas heats things up

BY MARY ANNA TOWLER

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.

3 comments

  1. So, lets see…Patti leaves Hillside, Danny Wegmans favorite charity and joins the school district. Then, Wegmans enters into a new working agreement with the city schools. What a remarkable coincidence! Oh, wait, maybe that was the deal…

  2. Joe Smith · · Reply

    Why is Bolgen gettting a pass, he supported many of the failed policys when he was a school board member and president, why do we all seem to forget about that. It is the polixys that he has supported and voted on/for which is the by product of a lot of these issues in the city school district today. Only in america can a man be a guidence councler in a suburb school and now run one of the biggest school districts in the state. Especially when there were other qualified canidates. They waisted money to fly a canidate up from texas when they knew that they were going to hire Bolgen. These Board member and “so-called” community leaders need to step up and be the leaders you claim to be. Because your not and our children are really behind the 8 ball with you people in office. How do you guys completely blow 750 million $? On what? How can you guys sleep at night? What has become of you guys? I just don’t see how you can make the votes that you continuesly do and expect different results. I know that a guidence councler is running the district I didn’t know that bolgen and adam are running the district and school board as well?

  3. Tom Smith · · Reply

    Everyone got duped into thinking that Vargas was cutting the fat-top heavy when he came in as Interim Superintendent and fired 3 major administrators. He made it seem as he didn’t support business as usual, got hired permanently, and then brought in his own fat-top heavy team for business as usual. WOW, as one article put it, “The honeymoon is over now” that the Board sees what Vargas is really about!…

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