URBAN JOURNAL: The City School District – Can this system work?

Superintendent Bolgen Vargas. FILE PHOTO

BY MARY ANNA TOWLER

“Who is in charge of America’s urban schools? Everyone and no one. We Americans love divided government. Distrustful of power, we established a constitution with three branches of government, each designed to check the power of the others.

“We have done the same thing with our schools. What could be more important than our children? Who can we trust to be in charge? We have diffused power over schools to state legislatures, to school districts, to the federal government, to state and federal courts, and de facto to education professionals and teacher unions. Diffused power is great for preserving stability; it makes change almost impossible.”

There you have the beginning of “What School Boards Can Do,” a book by Donald R. Adams, president of the Center for Reform of School Systems and a former Houston school board president.

“Diffused power… makes change almost impossible”: You’re looking at the Rochester school district.

I don’t bring up the Adams quote to make another pitch for mayoral control. We’ll never get it. And Adams isn’t pushing mayoral control; he’s pushing for stronger school boards and stronger superintendents, working as a team.

Is that possible here?

I don’t want to exaggerate the latest disagreements between school board members and Superintendent Bolgen Vargas – whom they selected only fourmonths ago – but frankly, those disagreements are troubling.

Some board members are furious that Vargas has hired a strong critic of the district, former Rochester Deputy Mayor Patty Malgieri, as his chief of staff.That flack will probably blow over, but it brings up an important issue: the role of the school board.

By law, the superintendent reports to the school board, and the board is literally in charge of nearly everything. It approves purchasing the textbooks and the curriculum used in the schools, for instance. It approves the hiring of every teacher and principal – an unrealistic job, given the district’s size. It does not, however, have authority over the people hired for the superintendent’s “cabinet”: the top administrators. That includes Malgieri.

That’s not the only disagreement the board has had with Vargas. He wanted to close School 16, which badly needs costly repairs. Vargas says the district has too many buildings for its population, and he’s conducting a study to recommend how to downsize. The board overruled him on School 16, though, so the repairs will be made. Last year, when he was interim superintendent, the board fought him over closing School 6.

And earlier this month, two board members lashed out at Vargas for not following through on one of their directives: hiring staff from a community-based program to train city teachers in cultural sensitivity and in increasing parent involvement.

Should the board be involved in such things as choosing who will train teachers? Should it overrule the superintendent on school closings? Legally it can. But should it?

The Rochester school board’s challenges won’t get any easier. Money will become increasingly tight. That will put even more pressure on the district to spend every dollar effectively.

Could a strong school board and a strong superintendent, acting as a team, pull that off? Could a strong team close down selected schools despite the protests of parents and teachers? Could it resist the pressure to hire (or not hire) specific people and use specific programs?

Could it find a way to make sure that ineffective teachers and principals are helped to improve – and are removed from the district if they don’t?

Right now, too many special interests, large and small, are pulling in too many directions, thwarting (and sometimes driving out) superintendents. This board could pull itself together and work with Vargas. But it will have to focus on the things that matter – on policy and goals, not every detail.

And if its seven disparate members can’t do that, somebody will have to develop a strong, cohesive majority that can.

 

3 comments

  1. Andrea Zuegel · · Reply

    The first rule of any successful board is do NOT get involved in operational decisions. The board oversees mission and keeps watch on finances; the Executive Director (i.e. superintendent) and staff run operations. If we don’t keep these boundaries, we’re doomed to fail, which is exactly what you’re describing in your column.
    The school board needs to focus on the goals of our district, and make sure we’re keeping resources on track with those goals. The Superintendent has to make some tough choices to meet those goals, and he should have the support of the Board. If that means closing school or eliminating programs, so be it. Let Vargas do his job.

    1. Joe Smith · · Reply

      Bolgen was a member of the school board and the president for years. He is partly responsible for the mess of which he has created. The school board needs to be more intelligent with the choices of which they make as well. Because they have hired Bolgen and as a parent that was the wrong choice. You do not get a first time superintendent of one of the worst school districts in the state of NY, who was a guidance counselor in the suburbs (totally different dynamic), a man who failed a the president of the school board a chance to run this district. But, yet and still we hire him? Not even considered for the other jobs of which he applied. I think that says a lot about him and the sorry school board members that voted for him. I hope that we are paying you over 6 figures as well. Be Blessed.

  2. What makes change impossible is the refusal to address the real problems!

    It’s not the Board, the Superintendent, the RTA, administrators or teachers.

    It’s the persistent poverty in which students live (and the related problems associated with huge pockets of poverty).

    Why do you think SOTA is so successful? It’s not due to “better” teachers or administrators. It’s due to a much higher percentage of middle-class families and parental involvement. If you had the same level of middle-class students at Edison, Franklin, Jefferson, or any other school combined with the high degree of parental involvement you would have a school just as high performing as SOTA.

    The parents and the school-based planning team are at odds over how many parents to allow to meetings! I know of NO other school where this is the case. I’m aware of others that cannot get even a SINGLE parent to come to SBPT meetings. And parents are GUARANTEED at least 1 seat on the SBPT! They wouldn’t be wasting their time attending.

    Visit SOTA on open house or parent-teacher conference days, then visit any other high school in the district. You’ll see the difference immediately.

    (This is the single largest difference between Charter schools and “public” schools. Charter school parents have to be involved enough to apply and enroll, and some schools require parent involvement as a requirement of staying.)

    So, I repeat… what makes change impossible is a refusal to address the real problems of the circumstances in which the district’s students live. Any other claim misses the point.

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