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Revised law empowers school supers


A revision to the state education law concerning failing schools could give Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas substantially more authority at a time when he's at serious odds with the school board over management.

Though it's still unclear, the law appears to give Vargas the ability to make sweeping decisions to improve failing schools, including overriding any school board objections to his plans.

A big question is whether the revised law will impact University of Rochester's pending takeover of East High School. The State Education Department approved the UR takeover well before this change.

Could the changed law overrule that decision? And could or would Vargas intervene at East?

The revised law, which is barely a month old, has many school officials in Rochester and around the state scurrying for clarification about exactly what legislators and Governor Andrew Cuomo agreed to in the last round of budget negotiations.

Under the law, superintendents will be made "receivers" of schools deemed by the state to be failing or persistently failing — essentially giving superintendents caretaking responsibilities. That revelation concerns many school boards and union leaders.

And it raises a number of questions involving the Rochester City School District. For example: at a time of heightened tension between Vargas and the city school board, what does this shift of power in Vargas's direction mean? What role will school board members — who are locally elected officials — play in turning around failing schools?

About a month ago, Vargas filed a notice of claim against the Rochester school board — a precursor to a potential lawsuit over what Vargas characterizes as board overreach and a lack of clarity about the roles and responsibilities of the board and the superintendent.

The clarity everyone is seeking regarding the revised state law probably won't come for several months when the SED issues "regulations" — what officials describe as the step-by-step manual for implementing the law.

Still, the state's latest rendition of intervention could set the stage for meaningful change in school districts such as Rochester where sustained and consistent improvements in student performance have been elusive. Or it could lead to more managerial problems and further declines in enrollment.

Under the recently approved revisions, the SED will designate the schools achieving in the lowest 5 percent statewide as "failing" or "priority" schools.

And those that have been failing for 10 consecutive years or more will be designated "persistently failing" schools.

Failing schools, based on information provided by the New York State School Boards Association, will be allowed to implement a two-year improvement plan under the district's superintendent. Persistently failing schools will only be given one year to show improvement.

The failing schools in Rochester are schools 3, 8, 17, 22, 34, 45, and Northeast and Northwest high schools. The persistently failing schools are School 9, Charlotte High School, Monroe High School, and East High School. Charlotte is closing, however, and East will be soon managed by the UR.

In both the failing and persistently failing schools, Vargas will have the powers of a receiver and will be required to form a community engagement team of parents, teachers, and community leaders. Their recommendations will have to be considered in whatever improvement plan is developed for the schools.

And the law gives Vargas unprecedented management authority over the schools. For instance, he'll have the ability to abolish positions based on performance rather than seniority.

If schools fail to meet their improvement plan goals, a second stage of intervention kicks in almost immediately. The schools can be turned over to an external receivership, which can be an individual, charter school operator, university, or even another school district.

What the Legislature and the governor approved is a lot better than what they started with, says Jody Siegle, executive director of the Monroe County School Boards Association. The governor was adamant about giving the SED more authority to intervene in failing schools and minimizing local control, she says.

Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, says that he's waiting for the SED's regulations because the revised law is vague. But he says that he's skeptical of how effective receivers can be.

New York State United Teachers vigorously pushed back on the legislation, he says, but wasn't successful.

"I used to think no one could come up with a worse system than the one we have now," he says. "But they proved me wrong."

Almost no one locally believes that the law will have any impact on the University of Rochester-East High deal. The UR's Steve Uebbing, who is also the educational partner superintendent of East, says that the SED knows that turning around the school will be a five-to-seven-year process — so the deadlines attached to the revised law do not apply.

"We have inquired [to the SED] about East, and it does not apply," Uebbing says.

Rochester school board President Van White says that he, too, thinks that the law would not apply. White played an integral role in forging the East-UR partnership. And he says that in many ways, the East-UR plan greatly resembles what the law refers to as receivership.

But an aide for state Assembly member Harry Bronson says that the law does apply to East, which is a persistently failing school.

White also downplays what seems like additional powers for superintendents. School boards will still have the ability, for example, to terminate a superintendent's employment, he says.

But Vargas sees the issue differently.

"This is a historic action on the part of the Legislature and the governor," he says. "Some of my decisions have been challenged, like the one [not] to grant tenure until we have effective leaders in every school. My hope is now we can shift from the struggle I've been facing to one where I can do the job."

While he welcomes his new powers, Vargas says that he still doesn't have enough management authority over the entire district.

"What it [the law] says to me is that I am moving in the right direction in saying that a school system needs greater flexibility," he says. "There are people who agree with me, that to run a system like this a superintendent is going to have to have the unequivocal support of the board where politics is less at the center of my work and the improvement of the organization is what matters most."