The performance last night by the boys chorus at the Leadership Academy for young men was moving and bittersweet. The chorus performed before the school board meeting — the last for Bolgen Vargas as superintendent of Rochester city schools.
Clad in their sharp navy blue blazers, the boys sang several gospel-tinged songs as part of a holiday celebration. They were, from youngest to oldest, bright-eyed, focused, and nothing short of spectacular.
In an ironic twist, what followed was a sobering look at a projected $37 million budget gap for the coming school year. The presentation kicked off a yearly ritual involving more than a dozen meetings before the board reaches an agreement on a final budget in the spring.
Many of the issues are familiar, having been predicted at similar meetings years ago. And Vargas warned last night that more staff reductions and school closures are likely as the district continues to lose students to charter schools.
Vargas dispensed with the usual education jargon and recommended creating a “school of last resort,” acknowledging that the district has not figured out how to serve a population of students with “complex social and emotional needs.”
He recommended a reassessment of programs like All City High, New Beginnings, LyncX, Freedom School, and Big Picture, which were initially intended as various safety nets to keep students with a variety of issues from falling through the cracks and dropping out. Some of the programs have been more effective than others.
It's unclear if the gains Vargas has eked out during his tenure can be maintained. What is becoming clearer is that Interim Superintendent Daniel Lowengard and the next permanent superintendent are going to have to make some tough decisions that many parents, students, and teachers will find hard to accept.
What used to seem like a situation that would get harder before it got better is beginning to look like it will get harder before it gets harder.