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Meet the New Head of the State's Largest School District

Via the Manchester School District website

Some call it the toughest job in the state of New Hampshire: superintendent of the Manchester School District. To know why, it helps to understand just how different the district is from most in the state.

“If we’re going to be honest, we would have to admit that Manchester is the only urban school district in the state," says Manchester school board member Richard Girard, “and as such it faces a series of challenges that people around the state -legislators in particular- either don’t want to understand or don’t seem to understand.”

Among the issues facing Manchester schools are high rates of student poverty – over half of the district’s 14,000 students qualify for free and reduced lunch. About 10% are English language learners and almost 20% require special education services.

And with steady declining enrollment leading to chronic financial instability, tensions in the district can run high.

So, why would Bolgen Vargas want to take the job?

“Well, for me it’s personal,” says Vargas.

Vargas, who is 54, moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic as a teenager. When he arrived, he didn’t know any English. Now, he has a master’s degree in school counseling and a doctorate in education administration.

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR
Vargas hosts an open forum with parents, teacher, and city officials to discuss a projected budget shortfall.

“And I’m here because of my teachers and public education," says Vargas, "I was very fortunate as a youngster and I would like to provide similar opportunity to the next generation of citizens.”

After two decades as a school counselor, Vargas was named superintendent of schools in Rochester, New York in 2011. The Rochester school district faces many of the same challenges as Manchester, only on a much larger scale.

“Dr. Vargas’ feeling was that if you put the district on a solid foundation," explains Jeffrey Murphy, education reporter with the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, "start with the earliest kids and make sure that our kindergarteners are on track, then we’re going to build through the years and turn the district around.”

But before that turnaround could take place, Vargas and the Rochester school board had a falling out. In 2015 Vargas threatened to sue the school board following a dispute about his ability to hire his own staff. He resigned later that year.

Now, about three months into his new job, Vargas is looking forward. But he says his priorities for Manchester: increased early literacy, better attendance, and financial stability cannot be achieved by the school district alone.

“The business sector, higher education, families, parents, students, politicians, school board, unions, all of us have to come together," says Vargas, "to draft a plan that could reinvent the public school system here in Manchester.”

Credit Ted Siefer for NHPR

Many of those same groups have high hopes for what Vargas can achieve.

Former Manchester mayor and long-time West High School principal Bob Baines says, in many ways, the school system is the last piece to the puzzle for a city that has come a long way in the last decade.

“If you look at the overall vitality of the city, you say ‘this is great a place.’ But then you have the public education system. And a lot of business people that I interact with on a regular basis have told me they’re very concerned about what’s going on with education in the city and if we don’t find a way to change the reality and the perception, we could lose a lot of good things that are happening right now.”

So far, Vargas has enjoyed goodwill and cautious optimism from most in Manchester. But that honeymoon might be over soon.

The district faces a projected six million dollar hole in its budget for next year and Vargas is charged with presenting a plan to close it.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.
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