On Friday, December 2nd, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Bolgen Vargas, the new superintendent of the Manchester School District. He was nice enough to meet us here at Memorial for almost an hour and answer questions about the tax cap, the city’s budget for education, and a lot more. Dr. Vargas previously served as the Superintendent of Schools in Rochester, NY – a city facing many of the same challenges we have here in Manchester. In addition to explaining the many difficulties facing our district, he also shared his ideas to help improve our schools.
Please note: the following is a word for word transcript of the interview transcribed from a full audio recording. Normal conversational grammatical errors were not corrected.
Scroll down to the bottom of the page for the full audio.
Jacob: I was wondering, with the budget coming up soon, whether you planned on asking for an increase or decrease in spending?
Dr. Vargas: Yeah, the number one priority is to close the projected budget gap. What that is right now is we are projecting a gap of 5.9 million and that would be, what that means is an increase in the current budget of 5.9 million just to maintain what we have right now. So it’s an interesting paradox, you have to increase the budget but you’re not adding more services. That is just to maintain current services.
Jacob Like salary increases and inflation?
Dr. Vargas: Yeah, and I can give you the, that is one of them. But also the pension increase. The state of New Hampshire four years ago shifted a lot of the spending on the pension to the local district and municipality and they used to provide us with a 35% contribution to the pension fund, now they are contributing zero. Now what that means for Manchester will have received 4 million just on the pension contribution from the state, now that is zero. So, we also have the spending on debt services and that is going up. Debt services is 8% of the budget and is just going up. So it’s not just one thing, I wish it was because it would be much easier to address.
Jacob: How do you plan on closing the budget gap? Asking for a tax raise from the board of mayor and aldermen or by cutting spending?
Dr. Vargas: The challenge that we have is this is not a one time problem. So in my view, this can’t be effectively addressed without the state stepping in and revisiting and addressing the reality that when you shift cost to the local level, in a community like this, you shift a tremendous burden to the local taxpayer here. Now the challenge in Manchester is that, for example, the diversity of needs that we have require for us to arguably, you will say because you had the most, arguably, and people will say that incorrectly, that we have the most diverse needs because a lot of students that come to us, English language learner, who we have to spend additional resources to educate them, and we are very pleased with that, that is part of our mission, but in order to meet the diverse need to our students, I believe that the state has an obligation to take that into account. And that was another law that was passed. Manchester used to receive additional dollars because the state did recognize that our student population had more needs than say the suburban district where, you know, the population is more stable and so on and so forth… And that is an area that the state would have to revisit if we are going to expect that we address the challenges and needs that some students bring to us and we are very proud, for example, I believe that the entire state of New Hampshire benefits when we get a refugee here. They become the future workforce actually, if you look at the population of New Hampshire, it is declining, and if it wasn’t because of those people that are coming in, your demographic situation, in terms of population loss, would be much worse. Now both of you are high school students and you probably could conclude that if New Hampshire is not having as many babies that are required to maintain the population stable, and right now we are in the negative and that has a long-term future consequence for us. So, there’s many reasons why the state needs to help us, and I think that all the stakeholders, including the business community, need to step in, and both of you will understand that if we do a good job in educating you and your peers, we are contributing to the long-term health of the economy, and that you can not maintain the economic growth in the long-term unless you maintain a high quality of education and have an educated population. No one has done it, there’s no single country or community that is successful in the 21st century without a highly educated population.
Jacob: So do you plan on going to the state board of education to request additional funding?
Dr. Vargas: We have, and I have spoken with our representative already and this issue that I’m bringing before you, I have articulated to them, and also publicly during school board meetings and in other forums.
Kayla: What do you count as non-essential academic programs or departments?
Dr. Vargas: I believe that everything that I’ve seen here is essential to provide a high quality education. I can’t think of anything that we are offering that is non-essential. However, what your question suggests that there are times that you confront challenges, and you have to put them in order of priority. For example, I would argue that I need to make sure to get your AP classes, your English, your social studies, your math and sciences. All of the areas that you need to graduate, let’s say. And the state has a requirement that we have to provide you [with that] in order to graduate. I would argue that maintaining a clean building, well taken care of, is a key priority. It would be that you have to prioritize, due to the limited resources that we have. So for me, extracurricular activities, arts, music, sports, all of those are essential because a well educated individual is someone who has enough appreciation and understanding of art and appreciation for music and is able to physically take care of themselves. I tell people that I don’t argue too much with Plato because everybody agrees that he was a brilliant person and if he was answering this question to you, he’d probably say that a high quality education begins with the arts. And I do believe that he was right, and that’s one of the strengths of our education system, that we provide such rich opportunities for our students, and as a result our people are flexible in their thinking and you create a very exciting school when you do that. If you just offer what some people argue [math, science, social studies], if you limit yourself to that, then you might end up doing some damage in terms of the quality of education that you offer to kids.
Jacob: So a big problem with our art department is that we have outdated supplies and not that many. How do you propose getting newer and better supplies?
Dr. Vargas: The proposal would be, my hope is that we can include the student percentile situation to the stakeholders here, including the business community, to the taxpayer, to our political leaders, for them to understand the nature of your question. I don’t think that the prior superintendent or your school principal are not providing the art supplies and all the tools that you need because they don’t want to. The answer is that the resources aren’t available. As I stated to you earlier, in the past 5-10 years, the state had taken a step that diverted those to an area away from the classroom. And I just mentioned to you the pension. Also they froze the building aide, so that means that everything that we fix, we don’t get any help from the state. So those dollars that could be available to buy the art supply are going to other area that are extremely important. So they have been shifted, and that us here in Manchester have to have an understanding that this is not sustainable. And I tried to explain it publicly in my meeting with the school board that what you have here is what is called a structural budget deficit, and it doesn’t go away. Just like, I don’t know if some of you have participated in a discussion about social security in your social studies class, that is getting to a point that you’re going to get less revenue than the obligation. So unless you do something about it, that problem doesn’t go away. That’s what I mean by structural, that the design is there. For example, we closed the budget gap and some people were saying “but we gave you more money, why didn’t you buy the supplies for arts and bring in more teachers and more programs or more services?”, and sadly I had to say to them that the money that you provided to us was used to close the gap that exists here because our revenue doesn’t match our current obligations. And in the public sector, you couldn’t say “oh, I’m going to stop doing this”, we got to continue to provide a high quality education, and that’s part of our mission. And we couldn’t say “well, we just got 300 students from all over the world which we are very proud of” and I couldn’t say that just because we are spending more to educate those kids that we are just not going to do it, we don’t have those choices. That’s part of our pride and our mission and that’s why when it comes to education, they call for all of us to participate, not just by providing the financial support that a school system needs, but through other means as well. And one thing that I love about this community is it’s very generous. I see a lot of people buying their own supplies and all their volunteering and doing all kinds of fundraising that is unheard of in some communities because they have the resources and they don’t have to be in that situation
Kayla: Would you make any changes to the curriculum, maybe adding more art credits?
Dr. Vargas: Right now, I will listen to teachers and listen to students and other. I don’t have any of them to say that we have, from what I’m hearing, that you could increase services in the area of art. For example, I don’t know how many plays you put on here.
Jacob: We didn’t do it for a long time, we just formed a drama club here, and I’m not sure if they’ve put a play on outside of school yet.
Dr. Vargas: Here in this school they do?
Jacob: Yeah, we just got our theater club.
Dr. Vargas: Correct, and that’s the setting. To put on a good production you need resources, and I’m hearing from people that they’d like to do more of that. To go back to your question if the resources were available, there is no question that that would be a key priority of ours, and it is, but if you have a priority and you don’t have resources to support it, then you know, for me to say we are going to do something when I mentioned to you the challenges that we are having, it would not be the most exciting thing to do because the question you’d ask me is how are you going to do it. Where’s the money going to come from? When you say you have a gap of 5.9 just to pay what we have today, that is not to add any more programs, and that is the challenge that will come up with the additional 5.9 million, actually some people are saying there’s no way that you can do it unless you cut. And it is my hope that if we had to go to making cuts, that it would be done very carefully but it is also my hope that we get some kind of support to address the financial challenge that we are facing
Jacob: well for cutting the budget, would you be open to transitioning MST back to a 2 year school instead of a full 4 year school?
Dr. Vargas: Right now, nothing is on the table. What I’m doing right now is listening to a lot of people and having coffee and a conversation and also I have a calendar of engagement including what I’ll be asking the students for ideas and how will we do it. From our school principal to our families, from our teachers to our students. All of you have good insights and good ideas that could help us. And someone like me who just arrived 2 months ago, one mistake that I’m not going to make is to think “here’s what we’re going to do today”, I got to listen to you first. So far I have gotten some good insight. For example, you do have a declining enrollment, particularly at the high school level. Our population is going down, which you know, which is part of the challenge, because the less students you have, the less financial support you get from the state. So that’s the source of everything that’s going away. We also had a lot of students that used to come here from Bedford and Hooksett and all the places, and not only the students came here, but with them came resources, because they used to pay us to come here. If you do an analysis of the situation, you see there’s a lot of resources that are moving away and unless we stop that, and that’s what I’d like to get our students and everybody excited about, to have a conversation, to say that if this continues, what are we going to do? It’s already. . . we are in a difficult trajectory. I already said to you that this problem that we have is not a one year problem. I wish I could say that and you would probably say to me “Mr. Vargas, I’m in good shape and I’m graduating this year”, but I know you’re a caring young man and you care about all the kids that are coming in, and to maintain this system going, I think there needs to be a robust dialogue here about the nature of our challenge and get the diversity of opinions here to come up with a plan in which we can confront this situation and it is my hope that we will have a plan of action in here to guide this district for the next 10, 20, or 30 years because nothing else we do, and we need a leadership of all of the stakeholders from the business community to our teachers, unions, political leaders, students to address this situation. This is not a situation that is a typical one, or one that can be addressed by a single entity. I think that this could be a mistake that we could resolve this problem, that the district alone could resolve this problem, or that the city alone could resolve this problem, or the state alone could resolve this. I’m trying to engage the business community to come to the table and also review our current reality, because what I’m saying, you know, I hope people look into it and challenge it, say is it true that resources are moving away? I think that the facts state that. To both of you, you probably know what I’m talking about when I say we are losing students that used to come here, and that’s publicly well known, and those resources are going away as a result and also students are going away as a result, and now you’re finding that our high schools are having less population and that’s an area that we are going to have to make some adjustment in terms of how much we are spending in the high schools, because common sense would tell you that if you had significantly less students, you need to adjust your spending. But that is only one area of the operation, and the population is, thank God, it’s not declining at the elementary level, or at the middle, but at the high school level, and primarily because of a lot of the students that came here from other districts were coming at the high school level, as you know, because the surrounding districts, they had the elementary school in place, so you know, they didn’t have to send their elementary students here. And next year, that is part of our challenge because less students will be here from other districts.
Jacob: For the standardized testing, do you think that the district should continue to use the SAT?
Dr. Vargas: Well the SAT is a valuable test that the families and the students will need for many colleges and universities, they require them. So for scholarship it’s required, so we don’t want to put our students at a disadvantage. So yes we will continue to use it.
Jacob: One problem with using the SAT though is with so many students that wouldn’t normally take the SAT, they tend to lower the average score across the district, which could put some federal funding in jeopardy because the federal government is going to say “oh, you’re underperforming, you’re not meeting our requirements…”(Dr. Vargas starts talking)
Dr. Vargas: Yeah, and that is changing. My understanding is that that is not. . . but you do things not because of, I will put, if I was to say that I wouldn’t give the SAT here, I would put, I don’t know, which college or university you’re planning on going to?
Jacob: I have it narrowed down to three.
Dr. Vargas: Which ones?
Jacob: UNH Manchester, George Washington University, and American University.
Dr. Vargas: Okay, I’m sure that some of them ask you “what was your SAT score?” in your application. So, and also they have a lot of discussion, but you have to prepare every child, and that is our goal. You have to. Because the economy is so complicated. It used to be a school counselor, and I used to say to kids “look, if you’re just going to a 2 year college, you don’t have to take the SAT. Or if you’re just going to the military” and the challenge is preparing students for college and career is an essential part of our mission, and the SAT tells us something, it doesn’t give us the full picture, the SAT is not a perfect assessment. I can tell you that it has a lot of things, but it is a tool that we have that is utilized to measure college readiness as one indicator, not necessarily as the totality. So you have to have some metric that tells you where your students are. And even if you’re not going to college, it’s important for us to say to the kids “look, here’s where you are”. American University, let’s say, wants 600 in your verbal and 600 in your math, you are 500. I mean, or you are 700 and you don’t have anything to worry about if you’re applying there. A youngster that went to the councilor here “I’m thinking I want to go to a 2 or 4 year college” and the counselor can look up the course, the GPA, the student himself, can look up various information including the SAT and can say “for the time being, you might be more suitable to go into a 2 year college, or into a training program”, or what have you. So it is a tool that is available that if used appropriately, it can be helpful. Now I understand the fear about policy but my understanding is that that will change now with the current administration. Now that it will, it’s already everybody will tell you that is knowledgeable about the situation, that the old policies are on their way out. So if that is the fear, that is going away.
Kayla: For kids with disabilities they usually have an IEP or 504 plan but the transitioning for some, whether going into college or getting prepared for switching into Middle School or High School. Can you share some thoughts you had on making this an easier transition?
Dr. Vargas: I think we have to put a lot of emphasis in the area of transition for any student but especially those with challenges. For example I had a student who had dyslexia. Brilliant, But in the transition you need to meet with the teachers. You needed to meet with the principal and everybody so that the needs of that particular student become known and everybody could address them. There are transition periods that are crucial including for students when they graduate from High School. How do we transition them to college? In terms of providing the right documentation to give it to the college including a well thought out IEP that represents their total needs. Counselors can also work closely with the colleges and universities and that will help with that transition. You also need a strong relationship with the receiving institution. And also even search because there are some universities that do a better job with some students with learning disabilities than others. I had a student in the past that went to a college that was “sink or swim”. You show up and you don’t get as much help as you used to get. When you are not prepared to do many things on your own then that could be very difficult. My key approach to any challenge, particularly your question about transition is awareness. That when you are receiving a student or group of students with learning disabilities that they have unique needs that need to be addressed in a timely way. A key part of that is that transition or period of time that the student get to know their teacher, staff, and in many cases, their peers.
Jacob: What Do you Think of the STEAM ahead program at West and would you like to see it expanded?
Dr. Vargas: The STEAM program is extremely promising. I know a group of students that are gaining college credit for it. People have asked me what do I think. It’s just like any program. The program by itself is not going to run well by itself without required resources and continuous improvement. Anything you see from the car that we drive today. You look from the day they were invented to the kind of improvement we have today. There is no difference in programs. I am a great believer in continuous improvement. Any program could be improved. All programs could improve. Everything that we do could be improved. I worry about when people talk to me and say “ Well this program just started and here is all the problems with it and therefore you should not continue that program.” That would be very dangerous. One thing I am hearing from people is that we have so many programs that come and go. Actually some people were calling it the flavor of the month. So, I am a great believer that when you introduce a program, if you are clear about what you are going to do for the student and how you are going to do it. Then, at the end of the day, how you are going to know if you are doing it well. Those are the three questions that I ask myself. Why did we bring the STEAM program? Well we want to prepare more students in the area of Science, Math, Technology and Arts. We argue that this is a good thing for schools to do. To prepare students to enter into those careers. The question is, that is the “what”. We want to do that for kids. How are we doing that? How is the program meeting that need? Then at the end ofthe day how do you know that you are doing it well? There ought to be something to measure it by. Like how many students are going into science after that? Or how many students are going into math? Or who are engineers? The program has not been in place long enough to answer any of those questions.
Jacob: Yeah because it has only been around for a year or two.
Dr. Vargas: Everywhere I go people have an opinion. It is either good or bad and I say wait a minute. Hold on. Don’t continue to make the same mistake that we always have. Which is this flavor of the month, this coming and going thing. Which drives kids and all their family crazy right? We humans would like stability. That is one thing we need in the district. We need to ask that question. How do we bring stability to a district that is changing? So, we are changing. I just mentioned to you that we are losing students. That is a significant change. When you lose student population that brings instability that needs to be addressed.
Jacob: For Common Core, Do you think the Manchester academic standards should be more aligned or less aligned with the national common core standards?
Dr. Vargas: Well again, all of that is gone. So I don’t like to get into a debate.
Jacob: Betsy Devos (Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education) is probably going to get rid of common core on the national level.
Dr. Vargas. Correct. So, how can you align something to something that is going away?
Jacob: Well the state government is still adopting.. (Dr. Vargas starts talking)
Dr. Vargas: My understanding is that the state also is thinking that. So, I am monitoring the situation. There were a lot of mistakes that were made through the Common Core. One of them was imposing on districts. You do this or else. One of them was you were asking me about the SAT which is tied to this conversation. Why should I spend a lot of time saying well here is what I am going to do when I know for a fact it is going away.
Jacob: There is still the larger question of federal standards. Do you think Manchester should still try to align to… ( Dr. Vargas starts speaking)
Dr. Vargas: I think Manchester could. I think that should be part of our community decision. You just mentioned the STEAM program. Again, It’s a program that is very promising. Take your AP classes. That is a very exciting curriculum . There are curriculum around the international baccalaureate program that could be suitable for a community like this that has such a diverse population of language. So, I believe that the local community need to say to themselves, “what is it that we want to do for our children?” That is the essence of any curriculum. What do we want our children to know and be able to do? That question is more important to be asked here at the local level then in Washington or in Concord. Do you know why? It is the taxpayer here that is paying most of the bill.
Jacob: How do you plan on increasing parent involvement? Historically Manchester doesn’t have strong voter turnout and we don’t have a strong PTA. How do you plan on changing that?
Dr. Vargas: Well that’s one of the major challenges that this community has and I’m planning on spending a significant amount of time engaging the community and soliciting ideas. I will tell you that, um, I will ask you, for example, a question about what are we offering to our students? So we have to ask ourselves, what are we offering to our parents to bring them into our schools, to engage here? Take, for example, your question. I believe most parents will come here if I were to invite them and I said look, I need to work with you to help your student, (let’s) come up with a transitional plan from middle school to high school, to see what is important. But if I said to parents “come over and see me, like right now”, I believe we would have a conference that lasts only several minutes. So we have to examine what we are doing, first, and ask ourselves, is it working? Because if I ask any principal or anyone here in Manchester they tell me, here’s what we do to get parents involved. So my plan is to ask, is it working? What needs to be improved? What needs to be added? What needs to be subtracted? And guess who has some of the, perhaps, best ideas? You, the students. So it would be interesting to survey the students and say to them – and actually maybe you can take it as a project and help me with it – and that’s one thing, by the way, it’s not unique, the question that I’m asking. I mentioned to you that no entity can do this work alone. The district, you know cannot resolve this problem alone, although we have the ultimate responsibility to engage parents. How we go about it is very important. The students in here, for example, could design your survey that you could do probably in your Social Studies classes, just making a five-minute survey that say, you know, what do you think the school can do to get your parents more involved here? Guess who knows the parents best? Do you think I do?
Jacob: The students?
Dr. Vargas: Yeah! Yeah! What you asked me is a great question, and thank you. You’ld be an incredible journalist. You do a great job as a leader by saying what it is you’re going to do and the answer that I’m giving you is that I believe that a lot of the solutions to some of the challenges that you talk about reside here with you, and if I don’t tap into that resource then I’m missing a big opportunity here to effectively address some of these challenges. But I put that as a challenge to you to help me out, maybe you can talk to your peers. . .
Jacob: I can definitely talk with my AP Gov. teacher. We’re covering surveys and public opinion right now.
Dr. Vargas: And you also know. . . and I would put it to action. For some idea to come out, and it won’t be wasted, because we need it. And the other thing is that most kids . . do you have brothers and sisters?
Jacob: Ah, no, I don’t.
Kayla: I have a brother.
Dr. Vargas: What grade level?
Kayla: Um, he’s a junior in college.
Dr. Vargas: Great! So if I were to ask your brother that question that I was asking, now on behalf of two people, two students, right? And there are many of you who were kids in the middle schools, but we need to ask at all levels, particularly high school kids because now you have great experience about the school system, you know so much about – every day you are in the classroom and in buildings like this, and you understand the whole school community and home dynamics because you experience that daily from a different lens.
Jacob: Do you think charter schools would help at all with the structural budget deficit that we have, or do you think we should continue to focus on the schools we already have?
Dr. Vargas: The, um, there are right now, um, like I said, there are significant. . . all I need to tell you, like, for example the pension fund. They used to contribute 35%, meaning that for every dollar that we are spending on pensions, 35 cents was going in. That was removed. So they have been. . . all I need to tell you. . . if you want it, and you can help me by doing an interesting story on what I’m saying just on basically research, and I will make people available to you. Ask the question: how many dollars have moved away as a result of losing students to Bedford, Hooksett, Candia, and other places? Not only did we lose students, we lost. . . so when you have a complex problem, sometimes it gets clouded by political thinking. Right? (laughter in the room). One of the things that I’ve been asking everybody is not to view this as a single factor. I wish it was. That it was one thing, right? It’s much easier to solve a problem if it’s a singular one. Sort of like our body, you know, if we have one illness it’s much easier than if you have three or four complications. I hope that when you go to a doctor you know, the doctor will tell you, it’s ok because, um, you know if you have an operations, and you don’t have diabetes, and you get a cut, you are much better off than if you have diabetes and you get a cut. So, meaning that you, now have multiple situations that you have to pay attention to. And that is the challenge that we are facing, that I’m trying to get this community to understand. And word on the inside, so far, that I’m getting, is that a lot of people think that this is a single-factor problem. Some people will say – well it’s the teachers’ salaries. Or it is the tax cap. Or it’s charter schools. Or it’s this. And my hope is that I can bring all those people and I can say – you know what? It’s multiple. Therefore, if you think it’s this, what is your solution to this? And if you think it’s that. . . because it requires a collective approach. Unfortunately, I wish it was one thing because I’d. . . it would be much easier for me and for the district to address.
Jacob: Well, do you think the tax cap is an issue at all? Do you think we should. . .
Dr. Vargas: They are all issues, but when you point to a singular thing then you’re missing the point. That’s what we did. So let’s say we raise the tax cap last year. It was overridden. So you see me here and we’re talking about the same problem, right? And that’s why what I’m trying to say to you and to everyone is that it is a structural problem, meaning, say that you attempted something for one year that’s a long term problem. Sort of like, you’ve heard the expression – I could feed you for one day? That doesn’t solve your nutrition problem that you need every day. Now fine, one day is terrific, but if you don’t have a way to solve your nutrition needs for the next day, and the following day, and the following day. . . you know. I helped you for one day and that is good. I’m not saying that is irrelevant. That is very relevant. But at the end of the day, if I’m not addressing your total needs I better make sure that we have a plan in here in which your nutrition needs are met each and every day. I use that example because our school system cannot go away. So you can’t just solve something for one year and expect to say hello, and that’s why I am inviting you to do the analysis. Last year we did. We did raise the cap, right? So why is it that we’re back in a worse situation than we were last year? Because we are worse this year. And you know why? Because of what I said. Those costs this year are going even higher than before and we are losing more students and less students will come next year here than are coming this year. So, um, it’s a little complicated. I guess that is what I’m trying to say to you. My hope is that we – from the students, to everybody – begin to examine this situation, you know, through some analysis that could, and I think that’s the conclusion that people will draw. I believe that there are multiple factors that contribute to the situation that we have, and that therefore it requires a more comprehensive solution than just a single thing that the superintendent does, or that one person, or the district will do. Thank you so much, I have to go. I’m sorry.