Karen Garza, a 26-year veteran educator who started her career as a kindergarten teacher in a tiny Texas town, will take over as superintendent of Fairfax County’s public schools this summer, becoming the first woman to lead Virginia’s largest school district.
Garza, who is serving in her fourth year as the superintendent of the Lubbock Independent School District, will replace Jack D. Dale, whose nine-year tenure in Fairfax will end July 1.
“It’s still sinking in — it’s exciting,” Garza said Wednesday. “I am grateful for this opportunity and am looking forward to working with the community in Fairfax County.”
A native of Canyon, Tex., Garza received a doctorate from the University of Texas and previously served as the second in command for Houston’s public schools, overseeing the instruction of 200,000 students. In Fairfax County, Garza will lead a school system with a $2.5 billion budget, 196 schools, 24,000 employees and 181,000 students.
“Dr. Garza comes to Fairfax County with impressive credentials and skills to lead FCPS in a time of incredible challenges and opportunities,” said Fairfax County School Board Chairman Ilryong Moon (At Large). “She comes to us with a deep commitment to openness and engagement and is eager to work collaboratively in the best interest of all students.”
In her current role, Garza oversees 30,000 students and has been credited with shoring up the school system’s finances and improving graduation rates. School Board members said Garza stood out from other candidates because she appeared uniquely suited to lead in Fairfax, having served as a teacher, principal and administrator in school districts large and small, urban and rural, rich and poor.
“She is someone who is bringing a bevy of gifts to the table,” said School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield). “She is a former teacher who will bring energy, excitement and enthusiasm to this position. I truly believe that this is the beginning of a sea change in Fairfax.”
The leadership transition in Fairfax comes amid significant increases in enrollment and as the county faces a financial strain. The county’s demographics also are changing rapidly. The number of students enrolled in English as a second language has grown 42 percent since 2009, and the number of students who are eligible for free and reduced-priced meals, a measure of poverty, has grown 35 percent.
Garza said that one of her key skills is the ability to engage the community “to give a voice” to concerned parents and citizens.
“My way of leading the school system will allow all individuals to have a say,” Garza said. “I want to be very accessible.”
One of her first tasks, Garza said, will be to work collaboratively with the School Board to address Fairfax teachers’ concerns about workload and compensation. “Working with our teachers to make sure their needs are being met” will be her priority, Garza said. “Fairfax County is certainly an impressive school system, and they have a track record for excellence. . . . Our goal is to build on that history of excellence.”
Garza, 50, worked in elementary education in the mid-1980s before assuming administrative duties in Corpus Christi, Tex. She was chief academic officer for instruction and facilities for the Houston Independent School District — the seventh-largest district in the nation — before she became superintendent in Lubbock in 2009.
Garza now earns $235,000 a year, and contract negotiations with Fairfax will begin in the next few weeks. The School Board is scheduled to take a final vote on Garza’s approval as the next superintendent at the end of this month.