The number of days left for Dr. Bolgen Vargas as superintendent of the state’s largest school district is dwindling, but one doesn’t get the impression he’s in any hurry to leave.
During a recent interview, Vargas spent part of the chat doing what he loves best — walking the halls at Manchester High School West, popping into classrooms, interacting with teachers and students.
While apologizing, Vargas pauses the impromptu tour for a moment to reach down and pick up a discarded napkin and place it in a nearby bin.
A simple act, but one that sums up Vargas’ mission since arriving in Manchester three years ago.
“I want to make sure when I leave this place it’s a little better than when I found it,” said Vargas, whose last day on the job is April 30.
Vargas was hired as superintendent in September 2016. In January, he surprised school board members, Mayor Joyce Craig, students and parents when he announced he would resign from the position. At the time, Vargas said he would leave in 90 days, but that stretched to April 30 following conversations with board members.
He also has never revealed his reasons for leaving. Last week, he again declined to get into specifics.
“The reason is for personal and professional reasons,” said Vargas, a native of the Dominican Republic and the district’s first minority superintendent. “That really is the reason, and I am very pleased with the working relationship that has developed with the board, administrators and the community that has allowed us to move the district forward. I think we are in a place, by all accounts, that the district is in a little better place than when I arrived here, by any measure. That gives me some comfort.”
Vargas said he isn’t ready to retire, but has no immediate plans for “what’s next.”
“This job, being superintendent, is very challenging and sometimes it’s good before I move into the next phase that I take some time to step back and reflect,” Vargas said. “When I take a position, I’m the type of person that gives it all I have, so it’s important for me to take some time.”
Vargas came to Manchester from upstate New York, where he served as a school guidance counselor for 20 years in the school district of Greece, a suburb of Rochester. He was selected to serve as interim, then superintendent, of the Rochester City School District fromMay 2011 toDecember 2015.He received his doctorate in education leadership and organization from the University of Pennsylvania. He has a bachelor’s degree in international studies and a master’s degree in school counseling, both from the State University of New York at Brockport.
Vargas immigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States as a high school student who spoke only Spanish.
Last week, Vargas said he will head back to the Rochester area when his time in the Queen City is up.
“I have family there,” Vargas said.
“What you didn’t know, we did put an offer (on a house) here in Manchester when I first arrived, but unfortunately we were outbid by another buyer. This is a great community and has a lot going on for it. I have been renting here and I have my lease ending, which makes it reasonable for a transition.”
In his email to city leaders in January announcing his resignation, Vargas attached a 30-page progress report, citing achievements realized during his time in the Queen City. Highlights include:
• Summer learning programs.
• A $300,000 grant from the Barr Foundation to transform West High School.
• Relocating district offices to West High School.
• Eliminating a $7 million budget gap.
• Reducing class sizes in middle and elementary schools.
• Restoring foreign language, health and reading teachers to middle schools.
• Districtwide tools to test reading and math in elementary and middle school grades.
• Bringing the special education program into compliance with state monitoring.
• The Manchester Proud effort among business leaders to improve city schools.
• And, of course, redistricting.
“Redistricting — people tell me they’ve been talking about it for five, 10 years,” Vargas said. “We did put a lot of work into it. We have already done about five things as we implement the plan that was adopted by the board a year ago. That plan is fully implemented with the network of schools on the West Side, and then we will be able to move to the East Side.”
“None of these things have been easy, but they have been done through a strong collaboration between administrators, the community, teachers, the unions, everyone in the district,” Vargas said. “In my view, you cannot be an effective organization without collaboration, particularly in education.”
Vargas said while these accomplishments are significant, there is one achievement from his time in Manchester he will carry with him always.
“It was my first week, at Highland Goffes Falls school,” Vargas said. “I get an invitation to come and help paint the building. I come from another place, in New York, where that kind of action could get me in trouble, interfering with work that belongs to another bargaining unit. My wife and I went in, our first week here, and when I arrived, there were children hanging around with their teachers, principals and parents there, and they were painting their building. I adopted a classroom to be painted for kindergarten, and so did many other people. I said to my wife, ‘What a special place this is, people care so much for their students and their schools.’ That motivated me. I already came with that mindset and it accelerated me, motivated me to say, ‘I’m gonna give it all I have to make sure when I leave this place it’s a little better than when I found it.’ ”
Asked if there’s anything he regrets from his time in Manchester, he admits he wishes he could have helped the board more with the issue of governance and meetings.
“I tried my best,” Vargas said. “I think it’s the job of the superintendent to make sure the board is as effective as it can be, and our board has accomplished a lot. And I’m going to tell you that they don’t get the credit they deserve. They unanimously supported Manchester Proud; that’s a board that’s worth paying attention to what they’re doing. The board supported the redistricting plan. Pretty much everything I did was with the support of the board because nothing can be accomplished without working together.”
Vargas said he believes the school board — with meetings known to drag on until 1 a.m. — “could definitely work on resolving issues in a more effective and efficient way.”
“Education is so important,” Vargas said. “I think we could do better by being mindful that it’s always better when we join together to achieve certain aims, and our aim is to educate the next generation of students. We’ve got to make sure that our time is managed better and remain focused on what matters most, which is our children and being able to reconcile our differences.”
School board members hope to have a new superintendent chosen by late May or early June, with an expected start date of July 1.
Asked if he had any words of wisdom for his successor, Vargas didn’t hesitate, offering a simple — but not simplistic — answer.
“Know that this job is about our children,” he said. “Keep that in mind in everything you do. And also keep in mind the people that work on behalf of the district and this community to educate our children. You have to support both of them.”