RCSD budget launches the Vargas years

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This is a corrected version of this story.

In the budget he's proposed for the coming school year, Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas lays out a longer-term vision that marks a clear shift from the past. While the goals and priorities are the same as many of his predecessors’, Vargas is trying a different approach to some old and persistent issues.

The problem is it could be years before we know if he is on the right path to finally turning around the beleaguered city school district.

Similar to prior superintendents, Vargas has made improving student achievement and increasing parent involvement his highest priorities. He has divvied up a $728 million budget to expand instruction time in core subjects by 43 minutes in all elementary schools and longer days in 10 schools. He’s redirecting teachers out of special assignments and back to the classrooms, and he’s adding reading teachers.

Vargas is also emphasizing early childhood education. He wants to offer full-day universal pre-K and shrink the classroom size for grades K-3.

To entice students to come to school, Vargas plans to greatly increase athletic activities. And he wants to add more arts and music programs.

To help entice parents to get involved, Vargas has made a commitment to neighborhood schools.

But despite a shift in strategies, it won’t be easy for Vargas to implement his grand plan.

For starters, his plan to fill a $50.2 million budget gap in the coming school year depends heavily on some big assumptions. Governor Cuomo has included in the state budget a scheme for giving cities and school districts some relief from soaring pension costs, but the component is under scrutiny by legislators in both houses; Vargas is counting on about $17.2 million in savings from the governor’s plan.

Even more troubling is $17.2 million he says can be saved through operational efficiencies. That’s an enormous figure to pull from consolidating programs and reducing the number of teacher and clerical substitutes. Vargas also plans to revamp how special education services are provided and the controversial in-house suspension program started under former Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard.

Vargas says there will be few if any teacher layoffs. And even though more teachers will be reporting to classrooms in this budget, about 300 full-time teaching positions will not be filled due to attrition.

But the plan Vargas has cobbled together to close next year’s budget gap isn’t his biggest challenge; some problems are more systemic. For example, the district will lose about 1,000 students next year, with about 500 moving to area charter schools. It’s a trend that doesn’t show any sign of easing, which makes it extremely difficult to plan for the district’s staff and space requirements.

Vargas says he plans to launch a campaign to promote city schools to suburban parents as a way of stopping the decline in enrollment, but that’s highly speculative.

Vargas also has to implement the far more rigorous common core curriculum with this budget, which could require even more resources. He has already lowered expectations for student achievement, arguing that students and teachers will be working harder than ever but graduation rates and test scores could stagnate.

While Vargas crafted the current year’s budget, the 2013 to 2014 budget clearly puts his thumbprint on the city school district. And the district's critics will soon want to see more in the way of immediate results from an annual budget that’s approaching $1 billion.

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