Rudy Garcia stunned fellow Santa Fe school board members and a few hundred people who had crowded into a public meeting to voice opposition to a proposal to close some small, aging schools on the east side.
Following a few seconds of silence when board President Kate Noble called for his vote late Wednesday night, Garcia leaned forward toward his microphone and said, “No.”
The crowd, realizing he had just shifted his position and therefore killed the unpopular measure, erupted in raucous cheers and applause.
Garcia, whose vote would break a tie between fellow board members, had been expected to favor school closures.
“People say we have declining enrollment, but that’s not citywide,” Garcia said in an interview last month. “That’s in the downtown area. Come to my district. That’s where all the kids are.”
Garcia represents several south-side schools, where student numbers have been rising.
“I would definitely be open to the option of closing schools in some neighborhoods,” he said. “We have to put our money where our kids are.”
In recent weeks, outgoing board member Maureen Cashmon, who didn’t run in Tuesday’s election, and Lorraine Price, whose seat was not up for reelection, have introduced the school closure plan as a way to address problems of aging facilities, inequities across the district and declining student numbers — which also means less funding from the state. The proposal pitted them against Noble and outgoing board member Steven Carrillo, who lost his seat Tuesday.
With two incoming board members who oppose closing schools set to take their seats in January — oncology nurse Sarah Boses in Cashmon’s District 2 and retired higher education administrator Carmen Gonzales in Carrillo’s District 1 — it wasn’t likely the measure would last even if Garcia cast a vote to pass it.
In a six-minute speech Wednesday night that came after five hours of testimony from school supporters, Garcia avoided making a direct statement about his position on whether to close Acequia Madre, E.J. Martinez and Nava elementary schools — but indicated he was still leaning in favor of the proposal.
“Change is hard,” he said. “Change is hard for everybody. Sometimes change is good. You just have to get through it.”
Asked about his unexpected flip in an interview Thursday, Garcia said, “I wanted to see what the public had to say last night and how my district would be impacted, and it was obvious to me that we need to study the issue further.
“There were no recommendations,” he added. “It was just, ‘Let’s close the schools and deal with it.’ ”
Garcia, who also is a Santa Fe County commissioner and has received criticism for his frequent absences from school board meetings, said he is still open to considering school closures.
“Yes, I’m still open to closing schools once we’ve looked at populations and equality for all students,” Garcia said. “Don’t get me wrong: On the south side we want and deserve small schools as well.”
According to district data, five elementary schools east of St. Francis Drive — Atalaya, Carlos Gilbert, Acequia Madre, Wood Gormley and E.J. Martinez — draw a combined 724 students from their home school zones. Most of those schools rely heavily on transfer students to fill their classrooms.
Meanwhile, five elementary schools southwest of St. Francis — César Chávez, Ramirez Thomas, Sweeney, Amy Biehl and Kearny — draw a total of 1,899 students from their home school zones, and at least 81 percent of the students who attend each school live in the school zone.
Following the failed vote on school closures Wednesday night, Carrillo, Cashmon and Garcia voted in favor of an alternative proposal that calls for Superintendent Veronica García develop a process to assess geographic and demographic disparities throughout the district.
She has until the end of February to present the process and propose a budget for the project, under the measure that was approved.
The measure directs García to examine aging facilities, per-student expenses, declining enrollment, school boundaries, interzone transfers and student recruitment efforts. It also calls for her to rethink curriculum and issues like magnet schools, aimed at drawing students with specific areas of interest.
“I was tired after the long meeting,” the superintendent said Thursday, “but I still had difficulty sleeping last night, I was so excited about the possibility of what we can be if we reimagine the district. We need to put the public back in public schools.
“Last night’s packed meeting was an example of that. People want honesty and transparency,” she added. “We will engage and listen, and if there are some pieces that are nonnegotiable, then we need to tell people that.”