School board and Vargas have last-minute budget fight


Obtaining reliable data has become a flashpoint of tension between Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas and some city school board members. At an often tense board meeting last night for a final review of Vargas’s 2013 to 2014 proposed budget, some members complained about a lack of general information.

With a vote to adopt the budget scheduled for tomorrow night at 6 p.m., board member Van White said last night that the board is being asked to approve a budget while questions remain unanswered at the 11th hour.

For example, when White asked about a program that supports teen mothers and whether school officials knew how many pregnant students don’t participate in the program, school officials didn’t know.

And when White asked whether the district knew which providers for tutoring and other services were most effective, Vargas didn’t have an answer. The same was true for getting an accurate reading on classroom sizes for some programs.

“We’re making dramatic and draconian [budget] decisions here, and your response is we don’t have the data,” White said.

Vargas and Deputy Superintendent Anita Murphy plead for more time. They said that the district has not been especially careful at collecting data in the past, so they frequently lack solid benchmarks for making accurate and informative comparisons.

Attendance records were so bad last year, for example, that the district was still counting students who haven’t been in Rochester schools for years as enrolled.

Vargas also said the district is seeking help with data collection and analysis from a team at Harvard University. Board member Mary Adams panned the idea, especially if it involved purchasing new technology. She said the district has a long history of spending millions of dollars on technology but has had little success collecting useful data.

In a heated exchange between Vargas and White, Vargas said he needed more clarity and direction from the board. But White said the board made its recommendations clear months ago: create a school modeled after the Rochester Freedom School or another School Without Walls. But Vargas did not pursue those recommendations.

“Give me a program that for these kids will work,” White said.

Much of last night’s feuding was about finding a fix to the district’s stubbornly low academic success, and trying to determine which investments out of the proposed $728 million budget are most promising. But board members got few assurances.

Vargas said it could take another three to four years before the district turns the corner on student achievement.

“What I’m seeing is not big enough, not present enough,” board member Willa Powell said. “Three to four years to turn the corner? I got to tell you that’s not fast enough for my kids.”