East LA native Monica Garcia only planned on working for LA Unified for three weeks. That was way back in 2001, when former Board member Jose Huizar asked her to be his first chief of staff. But Garcia, now 44, ended up replacing her boss when he was elected to City Council.
The job of a Board member boils down to just four main things, according to Garcia: “Hire and fire the superintendent, approve a budget, set policy, and serve as community voice. That’s the job.” Garcia is now finishing up her second term on the Board and is about to start campaigning for re-election. She’s also in the middle of her sixth year as Board president, an organizational task she executes with a loud and authoritative voice.
In her interview with LA School Report — the fourth Board member interview that we’ve conducted so far – Garcia discusses what it’s like to be in charge of such an independent and fractious group, the potential conflicts of interest that come from taking money from industries she monitors, and the possibility that the UTLA is going to spend $4 million to defeat her in March despite things like her support of the immediate restoration of furlough days following the passage of Proposition 30.
LA School Report: I noticed the statistics on the wall. What significance do they have?
Monica Garcia: There are good things happening. Now, none of us are satisfied. We just think that it is important to use data to reflect progress and help us be clear about why we’re pushing hard for more. Certainly, from 45% graduation to 64% graduation, that’s a good jump.
LASR: Talk to me about your job as school board president. I don’t think people really understand what it is.
MG: I take my job super seriously, and I wanted to do it full-time. Mostly because I saw what my boss [Jose Huizar], what the compromises were.
LASR: Because he did it part-time.
MG: He always had another job, a couple other jobs sometimes. That was before Measure L, so it was $26,000 and part-time for everybody. And then Measure L created hybrid opportunity [for board members to work full-time].
[As for being] school board president, you get to run the meetings. You get to work with the Superintendent’s office and the Board’s executive officer to just organize things.
I’m interested in being clear for the public what we’re doing. I’m interested in being clear for my colleagues about what the rules or the norms are. And my office has worked to help [other] board [member] offices. “What is it that you want to achieve? What’s you timetable?”
Our meetings on Tuesdays are not the most important thing we do. It’s certainly the formal process where the board acts.
LASR: What is the most import thing you do?
MG: I think we’re helping the district pay attention to people it serves. You’re out in the community, you see what happens, you have to talk to people.
Certainly, the rules are what they are, we have to follow state law, what the board is responsible for. We are the public’s representative. And to me, that’s a very important job.
LASR: Do you know what your colleagues are going to say at board meetings?
MG: No! Sometimes it’s been 4-3, sometimes people say out loud, “I’m not supporting X,” and then you know where they are. Sometimes staff hears from folks. I remember hearing, “If there’s early ed in it, Ms. [Yolie] Flores is not going to support it.”
So there’s an ongoing negotiation. Do I know what they’re going to say? No. Can I predict behavior sometimes because I pay attention? Sure. Most of the time people tell you where they are at.
LASR: What else do your colleagues want?
MG: Board members have been really clear: “We don’t want any after-the-fact contracts. We don’t want any documents coming to the Board members [right] when the Board [meeting] is starting.”
LASR: Your colleagues can make a motion any week to make another person school board president. Do you feel that pressure at all?
MG: No. Is it possible, that on any given Tuesday, my colleagues can choose someone to be president? It’s possible. Traditionally, the job is for a year, so every year they can choose for someone else to do it.
There’s pressure to do good work. There’s pressure to increase the numbers. There’s pressure to solve problems for people.
LASR: The rumor du jour is that UTLA is targeting your race in March and planning on spending a lot of money on an independent expenditure campaign. Have you heard that and does that surprise you?
MG: We have some 90 days until March 5. It’ll be very interesting. All stakeholders should care about who’s on the Board of education. I think there are a lot of teachers who support me. Do we have a different opinion with leadership sometimes? Sure. And there’s a record, and it’s kind of hard to be the incumbent after five years of horrible budgets.
It’s very interesting. We’re gonna spend a whoooole lot of capital on jobs that… I’m in a fight. I will fight the good fight and I will work a hard campaign because I think we have something to tell the people of District 2.
LASR: And so when you read that UTLA is planning on spending $4 million dollars to fund your opponent, does that worry you?
MG: Well, whatever the number is, I think campaigns are expensive. I’m a working class person. When I see $4 million, that’s a lot of money. Buys a lot of teachers.
LASR: You’ve raised a lot of money from charter schools. Isn’t that a conflict of interest since it’s the school boards job to approve or disapprove of charters?
MG: I’ve raised money from a very diverse set of folks. Charters are one of them. That’s a separate conversation than the way I do my job.
I need people to invest in the campaign. Whether it’s the largest public works program that built 129 new schools, 160,000 new seats, and the equivalent of 8 acres of parkland, or the people that, everyday we buy paper and pencils and toilet paper and napkins from –– those people care about who’s here. Like I said, there are people who contribute to a campaign and want to support my reelection. I welcome that.
LASR: If a Congressman was on the Energy committee and was taking money from the coal industry, I think people would look at that as a story. Isn’t this the same thing?
MG: The effort to raise money for my campaign reelection is not about the influence in how I do my job. Or the decisions. I’ve done my job, I have a record, it’s been very clear, it’s about kids. I’m inviting whoever wants to invest. They can do their $1,000.
LASR: There have been a number of forums in your district.
MG: Two, right?
LASR: Is it only two? I thought there were more. At any rate, you’ve declined the invitation. Why is that?
MG: I had conflicts for those two. The District 2 coalition, I got letters sent by registered mail, it wasn’t like someone came up to me and invited me to a forum. We have work to do. We were busy trying to get Prop 30 passed. There will be forums. We will participate. It’s mostly about timing.
LASR: Speaking of Proposition 30, there was one thing I never understood. Before it passed, the Superintendent kept saying, “All this does is avert budget cuts.” And then the very second it passed, the School Board voted to restore school days. Where did that come from?
MG: It was a leadership decision. We had talked with labor, we were going to revisit should [Prop 30] pass, there was a piece of money to restore some furlough days –– 5 days to kids, 10 days to adults.
It’s a calculated risk. And we were willing to take it. It’s not about bringing others back. But it was about making the people who are here whole, in a sense.
Edited and condensed for clarity.