The district’s spirit was broken back in the spring of 2011. Outgoing Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard had created chaos and ill will. There was a massive budget deficit and threats of hundreds of layoffs and program cuts.
Vargas was brought in to heal the wounds.
Astoundingly, no one raised a stink that a suburban guidance counselor was picked behind closed doors to head the third-largest district in the state. Though Vargas got the job because of his political connections, everyone agreed he’s a “good man” and a “nice guy.” Vargas seemed to be what the district needed at that moment.
As interim superintendent, he healed the wounds and redirected focus to education.
But when he got the permanent job, there were signs of trouble. Vargas couldn’t retain key people in his cabinet. He lost the support of administrators, who complained his expectations were always changing. He began to lose the support of teachers, who saw the climate in their schools and classrooms continue to deteriorate.
A good leader has to have followers.
Vargas made a series of decisions that angered his board, starting with his immediate hire of Patricia Malgieri as his right hand. (She was pro-mayoral control under former Mayor Bob Duffy.) There were other questionable moves, including the shuffling of principals, the inexplicable downfall of Northeast/Northwest, the dismantling of the Boys Academy and the special education “consultation” model.
It turned out, Vargas, who had never served as an administrator, wasn’t a great manager. His style was more autocratic than inclusive. That angered just about everyone who worked under him. The internal strife remained below the radar until Vargas filed a lawsuit against the board after they checked his power. It was clear the end of his tenure was near.
None of this should be a surprise to those who remember Vargas from his days on the school board.
Vargas had a model for his perfect superintendent: Clifford Janey. When Vargas was on the school board, he was a huge champion of the district’s former leader. Janey believed in a very strong superintendent and hands-off board. Assemblyman David Gantt got a law passed giving Janey and his successors more power. (Vargas had that law in mind when he sued his board.)
Until the bitter end of Janey’s tenure, Vargas was a Janey apologist and supporter, despite Janey’s horrible financial management skills and lack of transparency. Vargas helped orchestrate Janey’s resignation and large contract buyout. The deal was meant to allow Janey to save face, but the opposite happened. The board announced Janey’s resignation at a packed board meeting, prompting cheers from the crowd.
Vargas’ desire for Janey-like power and his dislike of scrutiny led to his quiet downfall. His internal problems stayed mostly under the radar, thanks to a school board that kept its exasperation to itself. The public never knew how bad things were behind the scenes.
The tragedy of Bolgen Vargas came to an end Tuesday at an awkward press conference, in which no one wanted to admit what was really going on. Vargas did learn one lesson from the Janey ordeal: Get out before they push you out in a much less graceful manner.