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‘An extraordinary legacy’

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García is closing out a 48-year career in public education that included two stints as superintendent in Santa Fe and serving several years as the state’s first secretary of education. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Though her last day on the job was Friday, Santa Fe hasn’t seen the last of Veronica García.

Now a two-time former superintendent at Santa Fe Public Schools, García said she’ll be back in the City Different to launch the Kite Tail Foundation, a new nonprofit that will work in support of homeless children.

“The reason I picked that name is because a kite tail keeps a kite from spinning out. It keeps it in balance so that it can soar,” said García, 70.

The primary focus, she said, will be on supporting children by providing them with various items that aren’t funded through the schools – a scholarship application or a pair of basketball shoes, for example.

“There’s also helping support, and work in collaboration with, other organizations around public policy to better support homeless students,” she said, adding that, through enrichment programs, homeless kids can envision a different reality that gives them hope.

Then-Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García talks to educators about a bond issue proposal that would upgrade the school district’s technology infrastructure. Voters approved the bond during an election in 2018. (T.S. Last/Albuquerque Journal)

That’s much in line with how García spent her entire 48-year career in education, which included two stints as superintendent in Santa Fe, plus an additional seven years in the capital city as New Mexico’s first secretary of education. An Albuquerque native, Santa Fe has been a second home for García.

“It’s a special community,” she said. “The profit and nonprofit community wants to work with the schools, and we grew that. It’s really a great school district. Teachers are committed and we have great community partners.”

Larry Chavez, who served as associate superintendent of athletics/activities and school support under García and will take over as the new schools chief July 1, knows he has big shoes to fill.

“She’s such an amazing mentor,” said Chavez, who was hired by García as associate superintendent for athletics and activities in 2017. “One of the things is she’s so detail oriented. She would read everything and go over it with a fine-toothed comb to make sure every detail was covered.”

Chavez said he doesn’t plan to make any major changes when he officially takes over the position.

“If it’s not broken, you don’t need to fix it,” he said. “Dr. García laid down a great foundation. We have a great team.”

Kate Noble, school board president, said García didn’t just bring expertise to the position, she also brought heart.

“The heart metaphor is appropriate. She wouldn’t let things languish or be neglected and also brought an understanding that schools are a social system. You can’t just be critical, you have to bring heart and creativity.”

Veronica García began her first stint as superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools in 1999. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

At García’s last school board meeting on Thursday, the board surprised her by rolling out a resolution that declared it Superintendent Dr. Veronica C. García Day, expressing “deep gratitude and appreciation to her for leading with the head and the heart, her immeasurable impact on the lives of New Mexico’s students, families and educators, and for leaving an extraordinary legacy in Santa Fe and throughout New Mexico.”

“Dr. García always really pushed for excellence,” Noble said. “She did an incredible job aligning and improving our curriculum and instruction – what’s at the core of education. She created a culture of excellence and collaboration, and was open to new ideas. … She was an incredible combination of knowledge, experience, heart and creativity.”

García listed changing the culture, fostering collaboration, opening lines of communication both vertically and horizontally, and aligning curriculum and instruction as among the things she’s most proud of during her second stint as superintendent.

Graduation rates shot up from 71% in 2016 to 86.3% in 2020 during her tenure, the second best graduation rate among all New Mexico school districts.

García said she’s also proud of the staff she assembled.

“We had a nice balance of new and experienced people, a multi-generational cabinet. It was very high functioning and a solid foundatio

Superintendent Veronica García hugs Fernando Bonilla, a student of Capshaw Middle School, while visiting staff at the district office in Santa Fe when she returned to Santa Fe as interim superintendent in 2016. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

n to build upon,” she said.

García thanked teachers on the front lines for the school district’s success since García resumed her role as superintendent in 2016 – hired first as interim superintendent after the departure of Joel Boyd, but handed the permanent position a few weeks later.

García said she felt she improved relations with the union workforce.

“We don’t always see eye to eye on everything, but that’s OK. But I think we’ve always been able to come to agreements,” she said.

Grace Mayer, president of the local charter of the NEA, couldn’t be reached for comment last week. She also didn’t attend Thursday’s school board meeting, but sent a message that was read by Noble. It said that the union membership and Santa Fe community was grateful to García (and retiring deputy superintendent Linda Cink) for their “leadership, compassion and professionalism. They will be missed,” it said.

García began her career as a classroom teach in her hometown.

She came from humble beginnings, raised by her aunt in a home with tile laid directly over a dirt floor, running water only in the kitchen and two outhouses in the backyard. Working odd jobs to help put food on the table, she learned the value of a public schools education through experience.

“That’s why I’ve always been so passionate that we have high expectations, but that we also support kids,” García told the Journal when she returned to Santa Fe in July 2016. “We have to hold ourselves accountable because we want to have access to high-quality education to break the cycle of poverty.”

García’s doctoral dissertation was on the professional development of educational leaders, so it’s not surprising she pursued leadership positions in education.

She was hired as Santa Fe superintendent the first time in 1999 and stayed until then-Gov. Bill Richardson tapped her as education secretary in 2003. She remained in that position through the end of Richardson’s administration in 2010.

Santa Fe Public School Superintendent Veronica Garcia leads a busload of community leaders on a tour of the district’s past and future projects in 2017. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

During that time, she advocated for educational reform and helped usher in the state’s Pre-K Act, Hispanic Education Act and programs that addressed at-risk students,” according to the school board resolution honoring her work.

“She also pushed for a comprehensive approach to educational reform by advocating for increased funding for programs such as school-based health clinics, breakfast in schools, and elementary physical education,” the resolution states.

After leaving state government, García spent several years as executive director of the nonprofit Voices for Children, which works to promote child well-being, until circling back to SFPS a second time four years ago.

The Kite Tail Foundation is just one of several projects she has planned in “retirement.”

“Coming off this work, it’s so intense, if I had to completely stop, I think it would be a shock to my system,” she said. “I’m not retiring, I’m slowing down and shifting gears.”

She’ll do some consulting work on a small scale, she said, and also has plans to write three books.

One of the books she’s already started writing is a memoir.

“I’ve been working on it a little at a time,” she said.

Another book will be about the components of ethical leadership.

“Ethical leadership is so needed. It’ll be about the components and also leadership strategies, and how better to pivot in education,” she said.

García said she also plans to write a novel. It’s a mystery novel right now because she declined to say what it’s about.

She also intends to spend more time with her grandchildren, who live out of state.

“It’s easier to travel now,” said García, who has one set of grandchildren in Arizona and one in Texas. “The pandemic pointed out how precious time is and how important it is to connect.”

And she’ll stay connected with Santa Fe through the Kite Tail Foundation and her continuing advocacy for New Mexico’s youth.

“Some people think that it’s trite to state that the children are our future and we must invest in them,” she said. “This has been my passion. I’m driven by the work I do. It’s a calling. It’s part of who I am.”

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