Since Superintendent Veronica García announced her resignation just under a month ago, members of the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education have not made efforts to hide their sadness over the news, "It breaks my heart that she's leaving, but she has to do what she needs to do," Board Vice President Rudy Garcia said at last week's board meeting, "It's going to be some big shoes to fill."
The board is working in overdrive to find a replacement for García before she takes her leave at the end of June. As multiple board members have noted, hiring a new superintendent remains their most important job.
The board narrowed the pool of candidates from 17 to six during an executive session Thursday, then announced those people will join the board for interviews on Saturday, April 17.
Four of the selected candidates are current leaders in SFPS. Associate Superintendents Vanessa Romero (Instruction and School Support) and Hilario Chavez (Athletics, Activities and School Support) are up against Deputy Superintendent Kristy Janda Wagner (Operations and School Support). Julie Lucero, the executive director for Exceptional Student Services, is also in the race.
Another applicant has ties to the district. Gabriella Blakey is the chief operations officer with Albuquerque Public Schools but previously worked as an associate superintendent with SFPS. Curtis Clough hails from Silver City, where he has worked as the associate superintendent for Silver Consolidated School District for the past three years.
The district posted candidates' résumés and letters of interest for public review after the board announced the selection on Thursday.
As the board wrapped up for the evening, members recognized the valuable contributions of Deputy Superintendent Linda Sink, who announced her resignation from SFPS this week. With three of the six candidates currently working under Sink, her influence speaks for itself.
Because Santa Fe is not the only district in the state looking for a new district head—20 others in the state are searching for new superintendents—the board hopes to move quickly to fill García's shoes.
"We want our first choice," Kate Noble, the board president, told SFR in an interview earlier this week.
Though the community doesn't get a vote on selecting a new superintendent, Noble said she plans to hold "listening sessions" to learn from community members about their hopes for district leadership. In a training session for board members, Hugh Prather from New Mexico School Boards Association suggested the board invite district staff and students to also provide feedback on candidates to gather more data about each potential head.
García said the board remains committed to transparency in the hiring process by allowing individuals to contact members of the board and view the résumés of the interested candidates.
Tony Ortiz, the district's legal counsel, reminded the board that a candidate may come across as finicky in negotiations over their compensation packages. He encouraged the board to focus instead on developing a positive relationship with the incoming leader. "Nobody's trying to insult you when they negotiate with you," Ortiz said in Thursday's meeting.
Additionally, Ortiz urged compromise among board members, "If you can get a unanimous 5-0 vote going in, it sure is the kind of vote of confidence that a new candidate wants and I think that this board wants to get behind them."
Between García's two tenures as superintendent—she first served from 1999 to 2002—SFPS operated under the leadership of Bobbie Gutierrez, a local educator who spent much of her career in Santa Fe schools, and Joel Boyd, an administrator from Philadelphia who ended his time with SFPS a year before his contract expired.
The board hopes to find a replacement who will continue the progress made under Superintendent García—also a candidate that shares her local knowledge and expertise.
"Bringing in some super smart person who can't feel who we are in Santa Fe does not work," Noble said, "It creates a learning curve that we can't afford to have. We need to have somebody who understands us."