by By Robert Nott, The New Mexican
August 14, 2016

When Veronica García begins her tenure as interim superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools on Monday, two days before students fill the district’s classrooms, it will be a homecoming of sorts. She led the district for just over two financially turbulent years, from 1999 to 2001.

During her tenure, she had to make some tough budget decisions, such as giving teachers a paltry pay raise that amounted to a “two-dollar-a-week slap in the face,” according to a New Mexican editorial at the time. She didn’t make the mess; she inherited it from the previous superintendent. But she made it her priority to balance the budget amid a grand jury investigation and a PricewaterhouseCoopers analysis of the district’s budget management.

Within two years, Santa Fe Public Schools had regained its financial footing, and García was named New Mexico Superintendent of the Year. Then she stepped down, telling the press, “I need to tend to my health and get some rest.” She recalls that time period as pushing her “emotionally, mentally, physically over the top.”

A couple of years later, she was ready for a new challenge. She accepted then-Gov. Bill Richardson’s offer to serve as the state’s first secretary of education.

Now, as García steps in to replace former Superintendent Joel Boyd until the school board finds a permanent leader, she’s again ready to make a positive difference in students’ lives, she said. Her short-term goal is to continue fulfilling the school board’s five-year plan, launched in 2012, while “planting little seeds here and there” to improve classroom teaching and learning.

“We need to inspire and get back to the heart of why we do this work in the first place,” she said in a recent interview at Santa Fe Community College, where she was attending a conference on early childhood education programs. As the former executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, an advocacy group for child welfare issues, she’s a big proponent of early education.

“We do this for noble reasons,” she said. “And, hopefully, we like kids.”

García knows people in the community may be feeling uneasy. “There’s always some uncertainty when you have a transition in leadership,” she said. “My job will be to provide a level of stability, to let people know that they will be listened to, that they will be supported.”

She hopes she can keep Boyd’s momentum going, particularly when it comes to increasing the graduation rate. The district’s five-year plan calls for a 70 percent graduation rate by the 2017-18 school year. The rate stands just below 68 percent.

García’s first job in public education was as a substitute teacher at Ernie Pyle Middle School in Albuquerque’s South Valley. Her memory of that first day? “I didn’t have a car. It was pre-Google maps. I had to look at a real map to find a bus to get me to school,” she said.

The job taught her valuable lessons about the need to connect with kids quickly and manage a classroom. “For the most part, kids don’t respect substitute teachers,” she said. “You have to move fast to engage different kinds of students and build a rapport with them. It was a good training ground.”

Soon, she was teaching special-education students at Manzano High School in Albuquerque. One of her peers at that time, Mary Hale, recalled that García was “very creative with teaching math. She would have her students find some current news event that had something to do with math and base their projects on the student’s skill. She was a master of figuring out the student’s skill level” and helping them “be successful and move forward.”

Hale, who watched García move up the ranks and take district and state leadership roles, said, “Not one time did she ever lose sight of what it was like to be a parent” — García has four children from two marriages and eight grandchildren. “She never lost sight of what it meant to be a student who had trouble learning. She didn’t lose sight of what it was like to be a teacher.

“So many administrators … don’t remember what it was like in the classroom at the grass-roots level,” Hale added. “She never, ever lost that.”

As Richardson’s education secretary from late 2003 until the summer of 2010, García worked with legislators to invest more money into pre-kindergarten programs, create a charter school division and a Math and Science Bureau, and initiate a Health Report Card to keep track of how schools were handling students’ health issues.

During that time, the state received grades between a C and a B-plus in Education Week magazine’s annual Quality Counts report, which evaluates state education systems based on financial issues, graduation rates and how well schools prepare students for college and careers.

Since 2011, the year after García stepped down, the state has earned three C’s from Quality Counts, then dropped to a D-plus and, in the past two years, a D.

An Albuquerque native, García said she never harbored ambitious goals as a child. In elementary school, she just wanted to grow up to be a teacher. She knew the difference a teacher can make in a child’s life.

Sometimes, she said, it’s not for the better.

One teacher’s small, seemingly insignificant act has remained firmly embedded in García’s mind and heart for some 60 years.

Because she was one of the best readers in her first-grade class, her teacher rewarded her by putting her in the choir. Apparently, she wasn’t a good singer — at least, the teacher didn’t think so. The woman told the young Veronica that it would be better if she mouthed the words to the songs rather than actually sing them.

It took years for her to feel comfortable communicating, García said, and she still won’t sing in public.

But she doesn’t shy away from making her voice heard, and she embraces leadership roles. Friends and former co-workers say García has an innate curiosity about people and the world that helps charge her leadership style. That curious side revealed itself in her early days in school, one of García’s former science teachers said last week.

John H. Montaño, 87, of Albuquerque, who is now retired, said, “Veronica was a very good student. She sat to the right of me in the second row of my demonstration desks. … She was one of those unusual students who was a pleasure to have in class, not making any trouble or doing anything except showing a bright eagerness to learn.”

By the time she was set to attend Albuquerque High School, however, García was ready to drop out. She called it a “complex situation. … I didn’t enjoy the social aspect of high school at the time. Part of it was that I was poor. Whatever money I was making while I was working was going to rent and helping my family, so I didn’t have money to participate in things. I did not feel a part of things.”

A sympathetic 10th-grade speech instructor named Ann Watters kept García on track and got her on the speech and debate team. “She cared for us, she believed in us,” García said of Watters, who has since died. “She was there for us after school. We could talk about anything with her. … If I had not found her and that niche, I would have dropped out.”

The turmoil of the times — the late 1960s — dictated the themes of the high school debates that García began participating in: civil unrest, the Vietnam War, racial tension. García got caught up in it all, and her newfound desire to communicate led to a different career dream: broadcast journalism. She was the first in her family to graduate from high school, and then she pursued a communications degree at The University of New Mexico.

Reality set in when she realized that, with the exception of Barbara Walters, there were no well-established female broadcast journalists on the radio or television. And there were no Hispanic women in that line of work.

“I had to be practical about what to get my degree in,” she said. Having an autistic brother got her interested in special education, so she switched her focus to learning disabilities and educational leadership.

Sheila Hyde, who worked under García when she was the state’s education secretary, said one reason García is a strong leader is that “she knows who she is, and the place she comes from in terms of leading and decision-making has to do with her own values and integrity.”

García said she’s still not sure if she wants to apply to be the Santa Fe school district’s permanent superintendent. “What’s more important to me is to focus on the work on hand,” she said.

“It is not appropriate for an interim superintendent to recommend big, sweeping changes,” she said. But it would be a mistake to assume García will be just a placeholder.

“I take this position seriously,” she said. “I don’t see it as biding my time. As much as everybody may think that everything will stay still, it won’t. I have an opportunity to make some positive difference and provide recommendations to the board … that the board, as policymakers, can decide to do or not.”

Montaño said he thinks she will do just fine as interim superintendent.

“She was in charge of the entire education department for seven years, and so the difference between the entire state and one city, it would seem to me like child’s play to handle just one district,” he said.

“She’s very intelligent and still eager to learn and sensitive to people’s feelings. She evaluates the situation pretty logically — not emotionally — and she takes facts into consideration.

“She’s a wonderful kid,” Montaño said. “She’s a grandma by now, but she’s still a kid.”

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