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Malgieri contract under fire by board

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Patricia Malgieri has been a strong critic of the school district, and most board members are furious that she was chosen for a key district position. In an interview last week, board member Van White said some board members are considering defunding the chief-of-staff position.

Since being named Rochester schools superintendent in April, Bolgen Vargas has been extremely popular with most school board members. But the honeymoon is over. In a special meeting last Thursday, the board went into executive session to discuss Vargas's decision to hire former Rochester deputy mayor Patricia Malgieri as his chief of staff. And it didn't go well.

Malgieri has been a strong critic of the school district, and most board members are furious that she was chosen for a key district position. In an interview last week, board member Van White said some board members are considering defunding the chief-of-staff position.

"I hope it doesn't come to that," White said. "But I have some significant concerns about how this relationship can benefit the children in the city school district."

Board members will meet with Malgieri to discuss some of their concerns, he said.

Even before board members went into executive session on Thursday, tempers flared — about the Malgieri contract and about several other issues.

In a nearly 20-minute exchange, White and board member Mary Adams complained angrily that Vargas had not followed through on a board directive involving professional development of teachers.

In late March, Vargas agreed to have the staff at the Freedom School — a pilot program designed for very low-achieving students — to provide teachers district-wide with professional training this summer. Board members say the training was supposed to focus on building cultural sensitivity and engaging parents. Vargas, they say, was also supposed to restore the Freedom School program at East High, where it operated for two school years before the district shut it down a year ago.

Freedom School, White said, has been successful in getting parents more involved in their children's education, something that has eluded the district for years.

But Vargas didn't pursue the program with any vigor, the board members said, and now it's too late because school opens in about three weeks. Vargas countered that his staff has been overloaded and stressed, and that the person who was going to handle their request has just started working with the district. He expected some understanding and flexibility from the board, he said, because of the "mess" he inherited in the district.

He also said he wanted to pursue a professional development program that has "integrity." That comment seemed to infuriate White and Adams.

White said in the interview that the superintendent has developed a pattern of deflecting the board's directions on policy decisions. And his decision to hire Malgieri was not in the spirit of working as a team to solve the district's problems, he said.

Vargas has put the board in an awkward position. He has the right to hire whom he wants for his senior, cabinet-level positions. But White said the Malgieri contract and those of three other new administrators committed the district to unprecedented demands. For instance, Malgieri is guaranteed a job for two years unless she is guilty of outrageous behavior — committing a crime, for example. Most cabinet-level employees work at the will of the superintendent, White said.

But if the board attempts to defund Malgieri's contract, it could open the district to potential legal action, and there would be public relations ramifications.

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