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The latest bad news from the city school district 

It's just about the last thing the Rochester school district needed, right?

Tension between the superintendent and the school board has erupted into public view, and that's terrible in many ways - not the least of which is that any bad news from the district reinforces the public's poor opinion of it.

In a move that had been under way for some time, the school board informed Superintendent Bolgen Vargas that it was going to vote on changing some of his "duties and responsibilities." Vargas fired back that if the board did that, he might sue. On March 3, the board went ahead. And Vargas filed a "notice of claim," a step toward a suit.

As is the case with any personnel matter, this dispute is more complicated than it might seem. But one of the issues at its core is the management of this huge, important institution.

The responsibilities of school boards and superintendents are spelled out in state education law. But within that framework, different school boards have had different philosophies about their role. Some boards have wanted a lot of power. Others have wanted to stick to making policy, and they have given the superintendent additional authority over day-to-day operations and personnel.

The current board wants to pull back some of that authority. The board says it's simply trying to get the district's practices in compliance with state law. The superintendent says the board is trying to take away authority that both state law and his contract allow - authority he needs in order to carry out his responsibilities.

Under New York State law, school boards are ultimately responsible for the operations of their school districts. The seven elected members of the Rochester board - who often have no professional training or experience in education - not only hire the superintendent but also "appoint" nearly everybody who works in the district.

In the language of the state education law, the Rochester school board "shall have the power and it shall be its duty" to appoint "principals, teachers, lecturers, special instructors, medical inspectors, nurses, auditors, attendance officers, secretaries, clerks, custodians, janitors and other employees and other persons or experts in educational, social or recreational work or in the business management or direction of its affairs...."

Obviously, the board doesn't interview every candidate and employee, check references, and assess performance. Supervisors and others do that, and in a large district like Rochester's, the school board's action normally consists of approving or not approving what somebody else recommends - sometimes voting on "hundreds" at one meeting, as Rochester board president Van White puts it. In the case of "instructional" personnel - teachers, principals, other in-school administrators - state law says the superintendent has the authority to make recommendations before the board acts.

Thanks to a 1997 change in the education law, one group of employees is excluded from the school board's hiring-firing duties: those who are in something called the SEG, the Superintendent's Employee Group. These are the staff positions that are part of the superintendent's administrative staff. The SEG members aren't in a union, and they aren't covered by collective bargaining.

That 1997 law names some of those positions specifically: associate, assistant, and district superintendents. But it also includes a broader category: "other supervising staff who are excluded from the right to bargain collectively pursuant to article fourteen of the civil service law."

School board president Van White says the board thinks that over the years, various superintendents have included too many positions in that last category, possibly including some that may be eligible for collective bargaining, and that the district may be violating state law.

On March 3, the board voted unanimously that the superintendent's "duties and responsibilities shall hereby be modified or deleted." The board changed three things. First, rather than being able to hire and fire SEG staff according to the school board's "Rules and Regulations," the superintendent can hire and fire them only as state law specifies.

The board voted to ask the New York Public Employee Relations Board to determine which of the positions in Vargas's SEG actually are "excluded from the right to bargain collectively."

Second, the board weakened the superintendent's authority to make recommendations about some other district employees. While state law says that the superintendent's recommendation is required before the board approves hiring and firing instructional personnel, previous boards expanded that authority. They said that the superintendent's recommendation is also required before the board acts on non-instructional personnel: cafeteria workers, for instance.

Third, the board must now authorize all service contracts before the superintendent signs them.

In interviews late last week, White said that the board is simply undoing some actions previous boards took that they shouldn't have taken. The board isn't trying to remove Vargas's authority over all of his own administrative staff, White said. "Clearly," he said, state education law gives the superintendent the authority to appoint, supervise, and fire people who are legitimately in the SEG.

In the case of the superintendent's recommendations on non-SEG personnel, White said, the superintendent will continue to make recommendations on all personnel. But the board can act on non-instructional personnel without those recommendations. Right now, the board can't do anything about anything in personnel "until he says yea or nay," White said.

The change related to service contracts is simply technical wording, White said. And with all of the changes, he said, all the board wants is to make sure the district is in compliance with state law.

But Vargas's attorney, Steven Modica, says the board's resolutions do much more than what White says. In a letter to the school board's attorney, released to the media, Modica said that the board "intends through these resolutions to assume direct hiring and firing authority over virtually every RCSD employee and to assume responsibility for negotiating contracts on behalf of the RCSD."

That, he says, will violate state education law.

In addition, Modica says, the board has unilaterally taken away authority that Vargas's contract gives him.

So is the school board trying to grab power? Is the superintendent over-reacting to minor changes? Did previous boards give superintendents authority that state law says they can't have? Or were their actions well within the law?

The Employee Relations Board will decide some of this. And if Vargas follows through, a court will also weigh in.

This tug-of-war is what can happen when we have both an elected body and an appointed professional in charge of a crucial public institution. Add personalities, management style, vision, and expectations into the mix and you sometimes get what we have now.

Although I think Rochester might be better off with mayoral control of the school district, that wouldn't prevent tension between elected officials and the people they hire to run the district. Jean-Claude Brizard left Rochester and headed to Chicago to lead that city's mayoral-controlled district. He left just over a year later, following tension with Mayor Rahm Emmanuel.

But we also need to keep in mind the difficulty of the problems facing urban school districts.

Frankly, I'm not sure they can dowhat we've asked them to do. I'm not sure they can succeed - not sure that the best superintendent and the best school board can do what we expect them to do. Because what we expect is that they educate children whose lives are affected by the enormous damage of highly concentrated poverty. Plenty of research has documented that damage. And it's not mere coincidence that throughout the United States, the school districts where student achievement is lowest are those where the poverty rate is highest.

In the case of Vargas and the school board, we're watching a very difficult personnel problem and a very complex governance problem play out in full public view. I think for both sides, the needs of Rochester's children are their first priority. I've observed many of the players, on both sides, for a long time. I don't think any of them are in it for themselves. They'd be crazy to put up with the grief if their interest wasn't in something much more important.

Given the tension between the board and the superintendent - which didn't originate with this dispute - and given these latest developments, I can't imagine this will end well. Vargas's contract ends in June 2016, and my bet is that we'll get a new superintendent then, if not before.

Could this relationship have ended better? I'm not sure. Criticizing the players is easy. Knowing what we ought to do now is considerably harder. I don't have any ideas, other than to repeat this: The challenges imposed by high poverty levels make it almost impossible for urban school districts to succeed. We shouldn't be surprised when tension and turmoil break out.

And there's a reason that these blow-ups don't happen as often in more affluent suburban districts, where the education success rate is higher. The real problem is the poverty, not the personnel.

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