Superintendent stirs things up in first year

Carlos Garcia said he is not afraid of failing, just of not trying.

A year into his three-year-contract, Fresno Unified’s chief is committed to improving the district’s image.

Despite a tumultuous inaugural year that included salary disputes with the teacher’s union and the adoption of a controversial “accountability plan,” Garcia said people need to trust his experience and vision.

“Every school needs to be so that if you walk on to campus, you would want your child to go there,” he said. “How can we sit here [when] we have schools testing in the lowest 10th percentile? How can we sleep at night?

“That drives me nuts. That is unacceptable.”

Photographs pepper the walls of Garcia’s office, detailing highlights of his 25-year career — he’s been a school board member, teacher, elementary school principal, middle school principal and superintendent.

A quote by Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata inside the door offers insight into a man whose ideas seem revolutionary to some in Fresno: “I would rather die on my feet than continue living on my knees.”

Garcia — head of the state’s fourth-largest school district, with nearly 80,000 students and 4,000 teachers — said he isn’t afraid of failing, just of not trying.

When he took on the $130,000-a-year job, he took on a district where two of every three third-grade students read at first-grade level.

He’s had to say he would enforce Proposition 227, which effectively ended bilingual education while heading a district where one in three students, or about 25,000, have limited English skills.

“People can make assumptions about why I’m here, but the bottom line is I’m doing things that are for the benefit of children, which means that isn’t always good for the adults,” Garcia said.

Even before Garcia came on the job, he faced controversy. Board members agreed they wanted a visionary with a willingness to collaborate; someone with experience in a diverse, urban district; an aggressive manager who stressed accountability while emphasizing what is best for children.

But they didn’t agree on the search. A professional firm searched nationwide, but in the end gave the board local candidates. Garcia was voted in by the slimmest of margins — 4-3 — but has since won over board members.

“I think he’s done a very good job and I’m very supportive of him,” said board member Margaret Sharp, who, with Michael O’Hare and Ron Dangaran voted against Garcia’s appointment. “He’s not afraid of change [and] he surrounds himself with good people and lets them do their jobs.”

Garcia had a busy year:

* He debated Proposition 227 co-author Ron Unz on national television, saying that his initiative is an oversimplified alternative to the state’s battered bilingual education system. Friday, he blasted the state Board of Education for bowing to politics and refusing to waive provisions of the proposition for Fresno and five other districts.

* He spent nearly nine months negotiating with the teachers’ union before agreeing to give the 3,800-member Fresno Teacher’s Association a 4% raise.

* He visited 66 of the district’s 93 campuses. He likes to drop in unannounced to get a feel for what is going on at the school.

* He helped draft the district’s policy for allowing religious groups to volunteer on campus.

“When we first started, I was skeptical,” he said. “And to see our entire religious community come together and hash this out and make a policy that is fair was great.

“The process was more important than the final product for this community.”

His tenure may be linked with his most controversial move last year — and his favorite. Garcia gave each school the responsibility to tailor programs that would improve the test scores and performance of their students.

“They would look at all the statistics and say, ‘I guess we’re in the basement again,’ ” he said. “All I’m asking is for them to assess what they do and get better.”

The so-called “accountability model” infuriated teachers, who felt they were being blamed for the district’s problems. It sent administrators into a panic.

“That’s the ultimate insult, saying, ‘We’re holding you accountable,’ ” said Carol Massey, president of the Fresno Teachers Association.

“The word ‘accountability’ is a huge red flag to our members because there is no one in any profession who is more accountable than a teacher. We’re accountable for designing lesson plans, executing the plan, assessing the plan, grading the results and discipline.”

Garcia made matters with teachers worse when he said he’d be willing to close schools that couldn’t meet his standards and make people reapply for their jobs to ensure that only people willing to work toward his goals would stay in the school. Those who aren’t hired at the schools would be hired elsewhere in the district. He did it before — in San Francisco and Sanger. He maintains that the process was only temporarily painful, that it ultimately benefited children.

“In education, as in any other business, there has to be a bottom line,” he said. “And what has stifled education is the lack of a bottom line. What are we afraid of? If you’re at rock bottom, how are you going to do any worse?”

* * *

Some parents rave about his no-nonsense stance and have faith in Garcia’s plans.

“He has real goals to improve the district’s ability to meet the needs of the children,” said parent Joe Guagliardo, who has three sons in three different Fresno Unified schools. “I think he’s raising expectations and I think people are going to respond to that.”

But some teachers don’t share that positive view of Garcia’s tenure.

“Sometimes you need to step forward, make a decision and make it work, and Carlos didn’t do that this year,” said Massey, pointing to months of salary negotiations with the teacher’s union before the 4% raise agreement.

“He talks a good story but there isn’t a whole lot of specificity to his goals,” said Jay Van Meter, executive director of the Fresno Teachers Association. “It’s so hard to define what he wants and how he plans to get there. Teachers aren’t used to that.”

Giving principals power for improvement means they pass on the responsibility to teachers — and blame them for the results, he said.

“I had high hopes for Carlos,” Van Meter said. “I hope he realizes that we are partners in the process.” Right now they don’t feel like it, Massey said.

“We’re getting dictates, [but] there’s a lack of teacher involvement,” Massey said. “There may be accountability out there somewhere . . . but everybody is going to make the person below them suffer.”

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Morale that was already low has dipped even further, and Massey said Garcia needs to address that.

“Don’t set us up for failure; give us an environment where we can succeed,” she said.

Garcia said he plans to work on morale in the coming year. But he also said that district employees need thicker skin.

“I’m not saying we can solve all the illnesses in society, but we can take responsibility for what we’re doing in the classrooms,” he said. “It’s an exciting challenge and as educators we need to see it as that.”

The accountability models won’t be successful right away, but people need to be honest with themselves about what they need to do, Garcia said.

“We need to give our lives to those children who aren’t doing so well,” he said.

“We need to adopt the motto: kids first, above all else.”

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