It’s finally out in the open. The on-and-off tension between Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas and members of the school board has erupted in a most unsavory way. Vargas has taken the first steps to sue his bosses.
This is not frivolous litigation. This is serious and it raises important questions about the role and responsibilities of elected school boards and the leaders they hire. Who runs the district and makes the day-to-day decisions? Should the superintendent have some of the same latitude in decision-making that most private-sector CEO’s take for granted?
And who should be held accountable when those decisions turn out to be wrong?
To recap: the Rochester school board in a 7-0 vote last night approved two resolutions. One revises the board’s policy regarding the Superintendent’s Employment Group. These are employees that are usually handpicked by the superintendent and are among the highest-level administrators in the district.
But they are not members of a union, which means that they serve at the pleasure of the superintendent.
The resolution is intended to limit the employees in the SEG to those permitted by State Education Law. Vargas says he's following the law now, but the school board says that he isn't.
The second resolution asks their attorney to get clarification from the New York Employment Relations Board regarding which job titles are allowed to be part of SEG.
But in his notice of claim, Vargas says that the resolutions “usurp the Superintendent’s authority and violate his rights” and that board members have “unilaterally modified the Superintendent's employment contract.”
The claim was filed in State Supreme Court. A notice of claim essentially lets the court and the involved parties know that a suit is coming.
The claim says that the State Education Law was revised in 1997, with the support of Assembly member David Gantt, specifically “to increase the powers relating to the management and operation of the Rochester City School District in the Superintendent of Schools instead of the Board.”
“The resolution violates his employment contract and violates provisions of employment law,” Vargas’s attorney Steven Modica said in a telephone interview earlier today. When asked if the board might be trying to get Vargas to resign, Modica said, “That’s certainly something we wonder about.”
But much of the disagreement centers on a longstanding question that has plagued many school boards and superintendents: what specifically are the roles of the board and the superintendent?
White says that the board’s resolutions are an effort to comply with state laws. The SEG group has expanded over the years to include employees who shouldn’t be there, he says.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. But the suit certainly doesn’t bode well for the credibility of the district.
The suit also raises questions about the district’s relationship with the University of Rochester as it steps into a management role at East High School — not to mention the district’s relationship with other outside agencies.
And does the suit raise the specter of mayoral control — legislation that would probably eliminate the school board and put the schools, the budget, and the superintendent under the mayor’s office?
And most important, can Vargas still be effective as superintendent considering his challenges with the principals and administrators’ union, and now the board? Is there still an opportunity for both the board and Vargas to resolve this amicably? We just don't know.