City schools' disgruntled customers


Bolgen Vargas.

At his last Coffee and Conversation meeting of the school year — monthly open forums for parents, teachers, and residents of the city school district — Superintendent Bolgen Vargas was probably prepared to address outrage over the slipping graduation rates. Rochester’s rate — well below 50 percent— had been announced the day before.

But what Vargas got instead were questions from angry parents about the most basic operational issues — customer courtesies that are standard at most used car dealerships.

A mother said she called her child’s principal several times after the child came home with bruises. She said her calls were not returned. Another mother whose son returned to the district after growing out of a local charter school said she was disgusted by the lack of interest teachers and staff showed toward her son. Her calls weren't returned, either, she said.

“You’ve got a lot of people here who just don’t care,” she said.

While a couple of parents praised Vargas and the district, they were exceptions.

The parents who came to meet Vargas were engaged city parents, the very ones school officials are always saying they don’t have enough of — the same ones they say they’re trying not to lose to charter and suburban schools.

But as one parent said to me, “If the district was a restaurant, there would be a lot of empty seats around here.”

While many of the district’s problems are linked to severe child poverty, some are caused by plain old bad management and a culture of apathy. If the district can’t serve its more engaged parents by doing something as rudimentary and important as returning calls, the idea of attracting middle income families back to the district and the city is nonsensical.