Anthony Vargas hit the ground running Monday night.
Appointed to fill the vacant Subdistrict 9 seat on the Omaha school board, he was quickly sworn in and, after a few congratulatory handshakes, joined the board in a closed-door executive session.
“Maybe no one told you, but once we go into executive session, you will start today,” Justin Wayne, board president, told Vargas.
Vargas, 29, is a newcomer to Omaha, having lived here for one year.
But in casting their votes, board members praised his outsider status and background in urban education. He taught middle-school science in Brooklyn, N.Y., with the Teach for America program and now is an education consultant.
“Mr. Vargas' application and outside perspective just stand out to me,” board member Lacey Merica said. “He has the ability to bring in that outside perspective of what's happening and what's been done in other urban districts that have the same problems with low-performing schools, that have poverty issues.”
In a 6-2 vote, Vargas beat out three other applicants: Brian Villafuerte, a Bellevue teacher; Emily Bannick, a professional at BVH Architects who was backed by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce; and William Sole, a longtime South Omaha resident who at one point worked on the operations side of OPS as an engineer.
The board interviewed each candidate separately.
Vargas replaces Sarah Brumfield, who resigned from the seat in September because of family obligations.
Board members said they were torn between Vargas and Bannick. Lou Ann Goding and Matt Scanlan voted for Bannick, praising her long-term vision and her experience serving on several community boards.
Bannick was the latest in a string of candidates to score a chamber endorsement. The business organization has become increasingly involved in the school board, and contributed money and endorsements to several candidates in May's election.
“Ms. Bannick really spoke to me as far as understanding the role of board member, seeing the big umbrella picture of everything — our needs, our strategic plan, understanding finances,” Goding said.
But the majority of board members said they were impressed with Vargas' knowledge of education policy and his ability to connect with the South Omaha community that comprises Subdistrict 9.
Vargas is Peruvian-American and bilingual, traits several board members said will be an asset in the heavily Latino community.
“I do strongly believe what's not represented on our board is that cultural connection to have a voice to speak to that district,” Yolanda Williams said.
Board member Marque Snow said Vargas stuck by his side as he was approached by several parents, some Spanish-speaking, at a community forum at Omaha South High School last Wednesday.
More than 200 people attended the forum, at times expressing their disappointment that they couldn't express their concerns about overcrowding, school security and the need for bilingual staff to Superintendent Mark Evans and board members, who left the meeting earlier.
“My district is primarily Latino-American,” Vargas said. “There's a burgeoning immigrant population. I identify with that. Eighty to 90 percent of our kids qualify for free or reduced lunch. I qualified for free or reduced lunch. I'm happy to understand their perspective.”
As a board member, Vargas said he would push for higher student achievement in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects and early intervention for kids struggling to read.
His status as a relative newcomer to Omaha could work in his favor, he said, requiring him to listen, learn and immerse himself in the school district.
Check back on Omaha.com for more on this developing story.