ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- In a sometimes heated press conference Tuesday, Rochester City School District Superintendent Bolgen Vargas announced he is stepping down on December 31, six months before his contract was set to expire.
“It has been a privilege to serve the board, the families, the students and this community,” Vargas said.
Vargas said he knew the Board of Education wouldn’t be renewing his contract next year. With that in mind, he said he doesn’t feel he could be effective in the new few months, especially in year that needs an $800 million budget balanced.
“I have a high expectation for myself and I don’t like the whole concept of being a lame duck,” Vargas said. “I didn’t invent it and I do know that certainty matters in leadership. If you have uncertainly, that is not good for any organization. I was in a difficult position because I would have loved to stay here and continue the work, but that’s not my choice.”
Due to his experience with the budget, Vargas will serve as a consultant to the Board and the interim superintendent from January 1 to June 30, 2016. The Board is also planning to bring in former Syracuse City School District Superintendent Daniel Lowengard as an interim superintendent during that time.
“The Board of Education indicated to Dr. Vargas that our preference was that he stick around until June, until the end of his contract,” Board President Van White said. “He decided, he articulated, a concern about the impact about this district to move forward.”
The concern some shared is both will be paid.
“We’re paying our superintendent half of his salary, because it’s basically six months to provide insight, guidance and direction at the desire of our interim superintendent to move our budget and our critical academic issues forward and that I think is a sound decision,” White said. “Some may disagree, but this board does not.”
“His knowledge base is certainly going to be helpful as we move forward and I’m excited to have that kind of assistance,” Lowengard said. “We’ve gotten along the past three years with some of the work that we’ve done and so I see it as a positive for us moving forward.”
Tensions between the Board of Education and Vargas are no secret. The most recent includes a lawsuit Vargas filed against the Board in March. Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski says he wished the Board would have given him more support, but also adds the polarization between the two has paralyzed the district’s schools and something had to be done.
“I think the board has a responsibility to either support or let go of a superintendent,” Urbanski said. “Obviously they weren’t about to support him, so they let him go, which is better than keeping him here and handcuffing him from doing any meaningful work.”
During his time as Superintendent, Vargas focused on reading by third grade, adding more sports, art and music programs, and improved the amount of instruction time students receive.
White said they still plans to focus on those priorities during the transition.
Vargas' departure is not easing the minds of concerned parents.
Some parents who attended the press conference said they felt disappointed at the news of Vargas' resignation.
A child advocate said plans with Vargas to change placement procedures for special education students are now at a standstill.
All said they're concerned about what they see as instability at the district's top job.
"I think that we have to model the behavior that we want our kids to follow and as a parent, as an adult, we're caught in the middle of the superintendent and board war,” parent Eileen Graham said.
Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said while she has no say in the matter, but she did say she thinks the change in superintendents in the middle of the school year could be disruptive to the district.
"I do believe it would have been more appropriate to announce that the superintendent was leaving at the end of his term and allow him to serve until a permanent replacement is hired, since it appears he will be staying on as an employee until the end of the school year," Warren said
During the press conference, Lowengard stated he has no intention of seeking the superintendent job at the school district full-time.
Lowengard served as Syracuse Superintendent from 2006 to 2011 before his retirement.
At the time, he said he was proud of what was called the “Say Yes” program. It offered college tuition to graduates of the Syracuse City School District.
However, there was a somewhat contentious relationship with city council and Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner. She often gave public voice to disagreements with Lowengard over renovation spending and planning.
The Board said it will be establishing a process and timeline for hiring a new superintendent in the coming months.