Carlos Garcia – Right Fit, Right Time for San Francisco’s Schools

by Peter Lauterborn on June 15, 2007

For a decade, San Francisco’s public schools have been best known for corruption, political squabbles and ultimately failures. That was before, as on June 13th the School Board was united in choosing Carlos Garcia to lead its schools.

The position of Superintendent is not held in high regard, following the corruption of the Bill Rojas era and the tumultuous days of Arlene Ackerman. And though he is not perfect, and has lots to prove, Garcia brings numerous attributes which appear to distinguish him from his predecessors and support San Francisco’s contemporary needs. No one should clam that Garcia will be perfect or immune to missteps—indeed, blind trust and adoration for past Superintendents has been one the District’s greatest pitfalls. But Garcia deserves to be welcomed with open arms, as his abilities and experiences fit well with our needs.

First, a brief biography. Garcia served as both a teacher and principal all around California, in such cities including San Francisco, Watsonville, Ontario, and La Puente. He was principal of Horace Mann Middle School from 1988 to 1991 and is largely credited for its later success. Garcia also served as Superintendent of Sanger Unified School District from 1994 to 1997, followed by a stint as Fresno’s Superintendent from 1997 to 2000. It was in 2000 that Carlos Garcia came to Clark County (Las Vegas area) in July 2000. Most recently—and clearly most controversially—Garcia has worked at education publisher McGraw-Hill (yes, ick.) But more on that later.

Garcia built up a strong reputation during his days as Principal at Horace Mann amongst teachers, students, and parents. Dacotah Swett, who worked under Garcia during his tenure there, described him as “a very nice man, a good guy, with an open attitude towards teachers.” When asked what she thought about the School Board’s choice in Garcia, she stated that she was cautiously optimistic, and that she trusts him more than a true outsider: “He’s one of ours, who is coming home.”

Virtually every one else I have heard from Horace Mann—students, parents, and other teachers—have echoed the same sort of support for him. He is credited with creating a motivating environment well suited for parental involvement and respect for students. At his introductory press conference on June 13th, Garcia stated that he was excited to be “coming home.”

Perhaps Garcia’s greatest asset is his reputation as an amicable individual; simultaneously approachable while maintaining a captivating personality. In Las Vegas, where he last served as Superintendent, he was famous for his amiable personality, going so far as to insist that everyone—janitors included—call him “Carlos” rather than “Mr. Garcia” or “Mr. Superintendent.” On Wednesday, Garcia repeatedly insisted that he does not believe that he has the answers to all problems, but rather that he will seek the advice of parents, students, and teachers when addressing challenges.

Such a personality is well suited to San Francisco’s present needs. Garcia is often seen as someone with a strong personality yet without the egotistic outbursts which characterized the Ackerman era. In addition, an existing rapport with teachers in the District could help soothe relations with the teachers’ union after years of disrespect and confrontation.

Of course, a strong personality to some is a big mouth to others. Garcia was often criticized for being more about talk than work and results. High School Principal Dr. Ronan Matthews stated that Garcia was “incompetent, full of hot air” and that “I wouldn’t hire him to run a 7-Eleven.” To be successful in San Francisco, Garcia will need to check his strong personality to prevent appearing as a reincarnation of his predecessors.

Garcia’s experiences in Las Vegas illustrate his political ability and a notable sense of vision. His tenure in Las Vegas is noteworthy for the rapid expansion the region faced: each year, Clark Count introduced 10,000 new students! Garcia successfully managed his District through this challenging time. He was also known for aggressively challenging the State of Nevada for its lack of proper education funding which resulted in overly large class sizes.

Lastly, Garcia was a reform-minded Superintendent who nevertheless managed to deal with a School Board dominated by conservatives. While San Francisco faces an annual decline in enrollment in the thousands—the opposite problem Garcia tackled in Las Vegas—his experience in planning is a necessity. San Francisco has responded to its enrollment crisis by mindlessly closing schools at times regardless of expected growth, academic achievement, and the community’s vitality. Also, his experience in state-level advocacy and managing politically charged atmospheres will serve him well.

And now we come to Garcia’s time working with McGraw-Hill Publishers, advising on Urban Markets. This affiliation was so problematic that it nearly cost him even an interview from the School Board. Why all the fuss? McGraw-Hill is America’s educational publishing juggernaut which is known more for seeking profits at the hands of public schools than for educational innovations. The corporation is also the publisher of Business Week in addition to a host of other endeavors.

Garcia’s own work at McGraw-Hill can be seen in two ways. Cynics see Garcia as a sell-out who chose the money and security that comes with siding with corporate America. But it is also worth noting that after years of dealing with conservative school boards and time in the private sector, Garcia stated that he is “chomping at the bit” to work in a progressive environment like San Francisco.

Despite valid concerns, it is important that Garcia held his position at McGraw-Hill for less than two years over a 30-year career, and will undoubtedly take a pay cut to return to public education. Garcia is clearly not a long-time corporate consultant attempting to enter education to advance a capitalist agenda, as some have made him out to be. All in all, Garcia appears to be a man of varied experiences and accomplishments.

Now it’s up to us to push him in the right direction.

Note: special thanks to Kim Knox, who wrote and published an excellent overview of Carlos Garcia on Left In SF, which I leaned on greatly in researching this article.

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