Since being named Rochester schools superintendent in April, Bolgen Vargas has been extremely popular with most school board members. But the honeymoon is over. In a special meeting last night, the board went into executive session to discuss Vargas's decision to hire former deputy mayor Patricia Malgieri. And it didn't go well.
Malgieri has been a strong critic of the school district, and most board members are furious that she was chosen for a key district position. In an interview this morning, board member Van White said some board members are considering defunding the position. They will be meeting with Malgieri to discuss some of their concerns, he said.
"I hope it doesn't come to that," White said. "But I have some significant concerns about how this relationship can benefit the children in the city school district."
Even before board members went into executive session, tempers flared - about the Malgieri contract and about several other issues.
In a nearly 20-minute exchange, White and board member Mary
Adams complained angrily that Vargas had not followed through on a board directive involving professional development of teachers.
In late March, Vargas had agreed to have the staff at the Freedom School - a pilot program designed for very low-achieving students - to provide teachers district-wide with professional training this summer. Board members say the training was supposed to focus on building cultural sensitivity and engaging parents. Vargas, they say, was also supposed to restore the Freedom School program at East High, where it operated for two school years before the district shut it down a year ago.
Freedom School, White said, has been successful in getting parents to become more involved in their children's education, something that has eluded the district for years.
But Vargas didn't pursue the program with any vigor, the board members said, and now it's too late, because school opens in about three weeks. Vargas countered that his staff has been overloaded and stressed, and that the person who was going to handle their request has just started working with the district. He had expected some understanding and flexibility from the board, he said, because of the "mess" he inherited in the district.
He also said he wanted to pursue a professional development program that has "integrity." That comment seemed to infuriate both White and Adams.
White said this morning that the superintendent has developed a pattern of deflecting the board's directions on policy decisions. And his decision to hire Malgieri, White says, was not in the spirit of working as a team to solve the district's problems.
Regardless of who is right in the controversy over Malgieri, though, Vargas has put the board in an awkward position. Vargas has the right to hire whom he wants for his senior, cabinet-level positions. But White says the Malgieri contract and those of three other new administrators committed the district to unprecedented demands. For instance, Malgieri is guaranteed a job for two years unless she is guilty of outrageous behavior - committing a crime, for instance. Most cabinet-level employees work at the will of the superintendent, White says.
But if the board attempts to defund Malgieri's contract, it could open the district to potential legal action, and the public relations fall-out would be a disaster.