by Robert Nott, Santa Fe New Mexican
July 10, 2016

In a surprise move, the Santa Fe Board of Education voted Saturday to hire a former district administrator and state education secretary to serve as an interim leader until a permanent replacement is found for outgoing Superintendent Joel Boyd.

Following hours of closed-door discussions that began Friday afternoon, just days after Boyd announced his decision to step down within a month to take a job in the private sector, the five-member board voted unanimously to offer a contract to Veronica García, now the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children.

García, 65, of Albuquerque, a longtime educator who was among several people the board interviewed Saturday, said she didn’t apply for the job. A district staffer called her Friday night while she was waiting for a flight in a Dallas airport, she said. The “whirlwind” process of hiring her for the temporary position took less than 24 hours.

Board President Susan Duncan said she and other board members initially wanted to hire someone from within Santa Fe Public Schools, but then they began discussing the possibility of hiring an outsider who could bring a larger breadth of experience and help the district forge its next five-year plan.

The board offered to pay García a salary of $180,000, the same salary Boyd was earning, if she stays from Aug. 15 until June 30, 2017. Though, her contract will include a stipulation that says she could be released from the job as soon as Feb. 15, 2017, board members said. The district still has to formalize the contract, which the school board is expected to approve at its next meeting in early August.

In addition, the board said it will pay García $10,800 for consultation to help make a smooth transition of leadership between Monday, July 11, and mid-August.

Boyd is on contract until Aug. 14, but Duncan said he will be using some vacation time before then.

“It just felt right,” García said of her decision to take the job. And since the board decided not to restrict the interim superintendent from applying for the permanent position, she said she might consider being a candidate if her experience with the district goes well this coming school year.

“Right now we’re dating,” García said of her relationship with the district.

The board held interviews with three other candidates, all of them currently employed by Santa Fe Public Schools — Deputy Superintendent Almudena “Almi” Abeyta, Assistant Superintendent James Lujan and Executive Director of Operations Kristy Janda Wagner.

Janda Wagner said late last week that she wasn’t interested in the job, but Duncan said the board called her in for an interview anyway.

García served as the state’s first Cabinet secretary of education from 2003 to 2010, during Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration. She was the superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools from 1999 to 2002, and served as an assistant superintendent before that. She started her 40-year education career at Albuquerque Public Schools in the mid-1970s.

García was a semifinalist for the position of superintendent at Albuquerque Public Schools in 2015. Her husband, Mike Wilson, works part-time for that district.

The Santa Fe school board is charging García with carrying out its current five-year reform plan, she said, which extends into the 2017-18 school year, along with supporting principals, overseeing the opening of the new Early College Opportunities high school on the South Campus of Santa Fe High and helping in the search for a permanent superintendent.

“I’m not going to go off course,” she said. “I want to stay on track.”

Among other immediate goals, García said, she plans to meet with the district’s 30 principals, but she wasn’t sure she would be able to accomplish that by the time school starts.

García said she expects to live part-time in Santa Fe while she serves as the interim superintendent.

Board member Linda Trujillo said García has been a longtime supporter of early childhood programs, along with the K-3 Plus expanded learning programs and the breakfast in schools program.

During her past four years with New Mexico Voices for Children, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit that advocates for child welfare reforms, particularly expanding early education programs, García said she’s missed being in the schools, where “all the action is.”

The nonprofit often issues reports showing how children in New Mexico fare when it comes to health, well-being, education and social services. García said she will continue working with that group for about a month to help it transition to a new leader. Her salary at the organization is around $100,000, she said.

Only a handful of people showed up for the board’s announcement at 4 p.m. Saturday. One, George Packard, said he thought the board made “a very creative choice.”

Grace Mayer, president of the local teachers union, NEA-Santa Fe, said in a news release Saturday, “We are encouraged by the selection as a result of her experience here in Santa Fe. Her ability to look at multiple perspectives and come to mutually beneficial decisions, we hope, will help improve relationships during this challenging transition.”

In the same statement, issued by the district, García is credited for balancing the district’s budget during her term as superintendent, following years of financial disarray. The book Insider’s Guide to Santa Fe by Nicky Leach also cites García as the one who “brought the district back to fiscal responsibility.”

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