The nomination of former Rochester, NY City School Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas was approved by the Manchester Board of School Committee after more than two and a half hours of interviews and non-public sessions. The ratification vote was subject to Vargas and the Special Committee on the Superintendent Search settling contract terms, which will be finalized at an emergency, non-public meeting of the search committee on Monday evening. Once approved, Vargas will succeed Superintendent Debra Livingston upon her retirement on October 1st.
The search for a new superintendent was not easy. Livingston unexpectedly announced her retirement in May, leaving the board little time to find a successor and doing so well after the optimal time to conduct a search. The board voted to form a special committee, which, with the help of search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates (HYA), began a nationwide search in June. The committee arranged for a number of “stakeholder” meetings, public forums, on-line polls and individual interviews with school board members, aldermen and administration officials, after which it developed and published a Leadership Profile to guide the search for candidates.
Between July 11th and August 22nd, HYA conducted a nationwide search that led to the submission of 37 applications. Working with HYA, the committee narrowed the field to six candidates at its non-public meeting on August 29th and scheduled interviews with the finalists on August 31st and September 1st. Those interviews were, in accordance with the agreement between the committee and HYA, conducted in non-public session to maintain the applicant’s confidentiality.
Following the interviews on September 1st, the committee recommended Vargas and Dr. Vincent Cotter of Pennsylvania unanimously, along with a third candidate whose name was not disclosed as he withdrew for family reasons upon being notified he was a finalist. The third candidate did not receive a unanimous vote. One candidate was rejected unanimously and two failed to garner a majority of the committee. Vargas became the “last man standing” when Cotter withdrew earlier in the week, citing unforeseen professional and family considerations that would prevent his taking the reins on October 1st.
Yesterday, Vargas toured the city, starting his day at the Manchester School of Technology, which he said was one of the finest facilities he’d seen in the country, then moving onto McLaughlin Middle School, Beech Street School, lunch with the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, Northwest Elementary School, Central High School and the district office. Each visit included Q & A sessions whose total attendance of parents, students, staff and other community and business members, numbered about 130 people, according to at-Large board member Rich Girard. About two dozen members of the public attended an open public forum at Memorial High School, which capped off a whirlwind day.
Vargas said often how impressed he was with not only the district’s facilities, but also how happy and engaged the children seemed to be and how dedicated the teachers appeared. He said after seeing the schools in action, it made him sad to hear the many who spoke about all the things the district didn’t have, opining that the city needed to speak more about what it had than what it didn’t.
During today’s interview, Girard said that there were 102 evaluation forms completed by attendees of yesterday’s meetings. Sixty two people answered “yes” when asked whether or not they “would want this candidate to be the next superintendent of schools.” Only eight said “no.” Of the 33 that did not answer the question, Girard said 25 have mostly or very positive answers to the survey’s questions and only 8 were mostly or very negative.
This morning’s two hour interview covered a variety of topics, all of which were discussed in public and broadcast by Manchester Public Television. During the interview, Vargas so engaged the board in answering their questions, that the hour originally scheduled came and went very quickly, moving into the second hour without mention by any member of the board. Vargas demonstrated his expertise as he addressed a number of issues with humor and grace under pressure as board members questioned his educational philosophies, service in Rochester, handling diversity and changing demographics, budget issues, the relationship between a superintendent and board and many others, such as graduation rates and summer programming.
In response to questions by Mayor Ted Gatsas, Vargas said a lot of money had been wasted on the Common Core national standards, which he said failed to be accepted because it was a “top down” imposition on schools and families.
In the end, while several board members had been sharply critical of the search committee’s process and procedure and otherwise been critical of him as a candidate, the board voted 14 to 1 on a voice vote to ratify his nomination as Manchester’s 20th superintendent of schools. Ward 12 Committee Member Constance Van Houten was the lone vote against Vargas, raising her hand when Mayor Ted Gatsas call for all those opposed to the motion.
Who is Bolgen Vargas?
Vargas is Manchester’s first non-white superintendent. While that wasn’t a point of emphasis for those who supported him, given the city’s rapidly changing demographics, growing racial diversity and the challenges faced by the district as a result, it wasn’t lost on many who met him during his tour of the city yesterday. He was frequently asked about diversity issues, minority student achievement and related items.
Vargas came to the United States as a 17 year old immigrant from the Dominican Republic. He had little more than two hours of education a day and got his middle school education from a radio program. Despite entering high school in the United States not knowing any English, he graduated in three years and went on to the State University of New York at Brockport, earing a BA degree in International Studies in 1985. From there, he obtained his MS in Educational Counseling in 1991 from SUNY Brockport. Finally, he obtained Doctorate Educational Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010. The title of his Doctoral Dissertation is Educational Success in the Face of Adversity as Measured by High School Graduation. It was accepted with distinction.
Professionally, prior to serving as Rochester’s superintendent from May, 2011 to December, 2012, Vargas worked as a guidance counselor in the Greece, NY Central School District from September, 1991 to May, 2011. From January, 1996 to December, 2003, he was a member of the Rochester City School Board of Education. He was elected by his peers to serve as President of the Board from 1998 to 2002. He drew heavily from his experience both as an elected school board member and a superintendent to discuss how he would work with the board and help define the relationship between him and it during his interviews with the committee and the board.