Vargas out: Impossible job claims another superintendent 

Here we are again. The Rochester school board and Bolgen Vargas, the superintendent it hired with enthusiasm three years ago, are parting ways.

Vargas's contract doesn't expire until next June, but tension between him and board members had been building, and they told him recently that they weren't going to renew his contract when it expired. So they're buying out the remainder of his contract, and he's leaving at the end of December.

click to enlarge The city school district is buying out Superintendent Bolgen Vargas's contract. - FILE PHOTO
  • The city school district is buying out Superintendent Bolgen Vargas's contract.

The board and Vargas are trying to make the change as smooth and publicly palatable as possible. While not denying the seriousness of the situation, they're describing the early contract termination as simple common sense. And it probably is. If the board wants a different direction, for instance, why have Vargas draft a budget that another administration would have to operate under?

Is there more to it than that? Certainly some people will insist that there is; the tension between Vargas and the board hasn't been a secret. And now many people will fly into yet another tantrum, damning the school board, damning Vargas, damning the teachers' union, damning the district as a whole.

But that's misguided. There's a growing crisis in public education in Rochester, and our latest difficulty with a superintendent is the result of that crisis, not the cause.

The problem is that the public and community leaders expect the impossible from the school district. Rochester has one of the highest child-poverty rates in the nation. And we expect the school district to provide a quality education that will set students on a path to college or a career, despite the poverty and its concentration in a large swath of the city.

This is not a Rochester problem. It is a problem facing every urban school district in the country.

I'm past the point of arguing about the effects of concentrated poverty on children and on their education. Facts are facts. The effects of living in a highly stressed, high-poverty neighborhood have been documented, repeatedly. We're snuffing out the chances of a successful life for thousands of children. Tragically, for too many city students, the future is one of continued poverty, life in stressful neighborhoods, and, for some, crime, prison, or early death.

But it's easier to point fingers than to work together and come up with solutions - easier for those of us on the outside to damn the district than to recognize that the solution involves us.

Vargas and the current school board are good people, committed to trying to do the impossible. We can get rid of all of them and bring in new players, but if we insist that the district has to do this job by itself, we'll find ourselves in this same position a few years from now.

The Rochester school district did not cause the poverty. It cannot eliminate it. Teachers, school board members, administrators: all can do a better job, and we should expect them to. But they cannot work miracles.

This is a moral issue, and I can't think of a more important one facing this community. That we have let our urban education crisis continue to build, decade after decade, is a sin.

This community is in the early stages of a new effort to try to deal with the poverty. As its leaders have emphasized, if that effort is successful, it won't happen overnight. It took a long time for Rochester's poverty to get this bad, and it will take a long time and enormous effort to make a dent in it.

Meantime, we're facing another big change in the school district. That puts a major responsibility on the shoulders of school board members, obviously. But those of us on the outside have plenty of responsibility, too. A good place to start would be to stop blaming the school district for a problem the community continues to let build.

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