Vargas foresees a smaller Rochester school district


It’s difficult to create stability in a system whirling from change, but that's where the Rochester school district is today. Historically speaking, the district is facing an unprecedented drop in student enrollment, says Superintendent Bolgen Vargas. The main reason: charter schools. President Obama's education policy — Race to the Top — lifted the cap on charter schools in New York State.

Bolgen Vargas.

More than 8,000 students have left the district over the last decade, and Vargas is projecting the departure of another 4,000 students over the next three to four years.

“We will have as many as seven new charter schools by then,” Vargas says. “And some of the existing schools will be enrolling more students as they add grades.”

The loss of students will have a serious impact on the massive overhaul of district buildings known as the schools modernization program. Much of the estimated $1.2 billion project is already under way, but a shrinking enrollment will require revisions to the latest set of plans, Vargas said during an interview yesterday.

A declining student population will also impact teachers and non-teaching staff. The coming year's budget greatly reduces, by attrition, the district's work force. But attrition causes a different type of staffing problem, often leaving a vacuum where important skills are needed.

Vargas, some school board members, and Rochester Mayor Tom Richards all talk about attracting middle-income families back to city schools. But convincing currently enrolled students and parents that they should stay in the district is a far bigger challenge. It's a bit like telling consumers they should keep buying Kodak products when it's uncertain where the company will be in five years.

There were nearly 40,000 students enrolled in city schools when enrollment peaked in 1999. By 2017, that number will have fallen to about 25,000 students. More schools will need to close as a result, Vargas says. (At a meeting with parents at School 44 this week, Vargas said he will recommend closing the school before 2020.)

“We don’t want this district to become like the Philadelphia school system where they knew they didn’t need all of their schools,” he says. “They had schools operating with just 19 percent capacity.”

Closing schools is an anathema to many parents even when the schools are not performing well. But decline is not necessarily a bad thing, Vargas says. Many people think that a smaller school system could be easier to manage.

“It depends on how you manage it [decline]," Vargas says. "If we don’t improve the quality of services for students and families, we’ll continue to see this decline.”