Lately, Pedro Garcia has been getting phone calls from a handful of urban school districts with superintendent job vacancies. That’s not news: executive search firms contact school system CEOs all the time to drum up interest for jobs around the country. What’s news is that, since October’s 5-4 school board vote not to extend his contract beyond 2007, Garcia’s been calling back these headhunters.
“I am aware that he has been contacted by at least four districts,” says Pam Garrett, chair of the Metro Board of Education. “I have asked him to keep me in the loop if he considers one seriously.” Thus far, Garrett says, Garcia has indicated he’s only having preliminary conversations about job openings. Those vacancies, according to sources, include school systems in Charlotte, Annapolis, Wake County (North Carolina) and possibly San Francisco.
In Monday morning’s cabinet meeting, Garcia gave his staff a heads-up: several superintendent positions would come open in January, he said, and he expected he would be involved in pursuing some of them. His staff asked no questions, and the meeting continued as usual.
Garrett says that Garcia has kept her aware in the past when he was contacted about job openings in other systems. “It’s my understanding that up until the [contract non-renewal] vote, he has summarily told people he’s not interested, since Miami,” she says, referring to his unabashed public flirtation with the Miami school system in April 2004. Garrett says that since October’s de facto no-confidence vote by the board, it’s only natural for Garcia to consider his options. “He knows that his time is limited without a changed vote of the board. So I think what’s different is he probably is entertaining discussions with other districts, and that is both fair and expected,” she says.
School board member Lisa Hunt, who voted against extending Garcia’s contract, says she didn’t know he was pursuing other opportunities but isn’t surprised. “I think Dr. Garcia made it very clear where he was the night of the evaluation,” she says, referring to his public warning that he wouldn’t stick around until 2007 if his contract wasn’t renewed, “so I would expect that he would be looking.” Hunt doesn’t seem worried that Metro’s education chief is job-hunting. “The mission of the school system isn’t dependent on any one person. It’s bigger than all of us, including the director of schools,” she says.
Garcia didn’t return calls for this story, but for years it’s been said that he wants to return to California and run the Los Angeles school system—near his beloved University of Southern California. That job will supposedly be vacant in a year, although L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been making noises about taking over the system himself. (Many locals snicker that Garcia has plenty of experience working for a micromanaging mayor.)
Moreover, Garcia hasn’t been shy about burning bridges. Last week, at an Alliance for Public Education luncheon at Hillsboro High School, Garcia characterized the mayor and Metro Council as “insane.” Asked for clarification by a chuckling audience member, Garcia reportedly repeated that the council is “certifiably insane. They’re morons.” He went on to describe a series of frivolous and half-baked resolutions the city’s legislative body passed and foisted upon the school system. Garcia may be right about the council, but he’s probably not winning any friends by saying it out loud.
Meanwhile, the growing talk of his departure forces the school board to confront another thorny issue: what to do if he leaves? “I have talked to him privately about succession,” says Garrett, noting that there may be a precedent for the system’s finance chief to take over when the director leaves. “But that is a conversation we have not yet finished. We are due to meet over the holidays.” At that time, she anticipates, the system will formalize its plan for naming an interim successor and conducting a search—in the event that it becomes necessary.
It is, frankly, a weird time in the Metro school system’s upper branches. Garcia’s not resigning yet, but he’s openly considering leaving. The board’s not firing him yet, but they’ve basically told him they’re sick of him. The marriage has gone cold, and yet no one’s gotten up the nerve to leave. It’s only a matter of time before someone bolts—and what an uncomfortable period of time it will be.
Meanwhile, the board finds itself sharply divided (and widely criticized) over the non-renewal vote that set this ball in motion. The “renew his contract” crowd feels that if the board was going to boot him, they should have had a successor waiting in the wings, corporate-America-style: vote no-confidence, then buy out his contract and tell him to leave the premises immediately. Those who voted against contract renewal (and their supporters), meanwhile, say that they didn’t collude on the vote and don’t feel a backroom-crafted succession plan would have been legal or ethical. The vote went the way it did, and the publicly run system must go forward from there.
When the openly ambitious Garcia came to Nashville in 2001, he made it no secret that he viewed Nashville as a step on the ladder to bigger and better things, a résumé-builder on the way to L.A. Some now speculate that, like most transplants, Garcia would be happy to stay in this charming Southern city a little longer. At the very least, he probably wants to leave on his own terms.
The board, for better or worse, has put out the unwelcome mat for the city’s lightning rod schools director. For the time being, school board members are stuck with an awkward mess on their hands—and a miffed superintendent who’s reading the want-ads.