Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent Karen Garza announced late Monday that she will resign her leadership of one of the nation’s largest school systems to accept a new role at an Ohio-based education nonprofit group.
Garza’s departure will be effective Dec. 16 — three and a half years after she started in Fairfax — and she will move to Columbus to become president and chief executive of Battelle for Kids. Garza had recently signed a new contract extending her tenure as superintendent for another four years, but she said Monday that she had informed the school board at the time that she wasn’t sure how long she’d be staying.
Garza said in an interview Monday evening that she considered the nonprofit position “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to join a respected organization known for its influential education policy development. She said she was not looking to leave the district; Garza said she first learned about the job in the middle of August, when a search firm contacted her about the position, and said she had received interest from other school districts about superintendent openings but had declined.
“There’s no place I’d rather be superintendent than right where I am,” Garza said. “I was not interested in being superintendent anywhere else.”
Garza made history as the first woman to serve as superintendent in Fairfax, the largest school system in Virginia and 10th largest in the country with 186,000 students. She took on hot-button issues — such as later high school start times and getting rid of a longstanding tradition of half-day Mondays in elementary school — and also challenged Fairfax residents to address what she considered potentially catastrophic budget shortfalls.
Her budget positions — at one point sounding an alarm that Fairfax could be jeopardizing its heralded school system and asking the public to come up with millions of dollars in suggested cuts — at times put her at odds with county officials. This year, she pushed through a $2.7 billion budget that raised teacher salaries, cut elementary class sizes and marked the first time in three years that the district did not have to make serious cuts.
“I’m so proud of the work we’ve accomplished here,” Garza said, noting that she’s grateful that the school board “took a chance on this girl from Lubbock, Texas, and I’ll always be indebted to them.”
A native Texan, Garza began her career as a classroom teacher before ascending the ranks in public schools from Corpus Christi to Houston. She was the superintendent of schools in Lubbock, Tex., when she was recruited by the school board in Northern Virginia.
School Board Chair Sandy Evans said in a statement that the board is proud of Garza’s accomplishments focusing on student achievement and providing “attention and action to support our most challenged schools.” Evans described Garza as “a transformational leader who has had a tremendous positive impact on our schools, families, employees, and most importantly the children of Fairfax County.”
“She’s done so much in a short space of time,” Evans said in an interview Monday night, noting that she had hoped Garza would stay longer but that she considers Garza a top talent in the field and figured that she would be in high demand. “She’s accomplished so many things. She’s got us on the right path.”
Board member Elizabeth Schultz said the announcement caught her off guard. She praised Garza’s ability to tackle tough issues quickly, such as when she successfully pushed through later start times for high schoolers — something that other districts have struggled to accomplish — and got rid of the school system’s long-standing tradition of having half-day Mondays for elementary school students.
“She was willing to roll up her sleeves to do what was possible,” Schultz said. She lauded Garza’s ability “to be brave and tackle that which is seemingly impossible.”
Ben Press, now an 18-year-old freshman at Princeton University, was the student representative on the school board last school year. He said Garza took meetings with him to explain the inner workings of the budget and seemed to take his perspective — and the perspectives of other student leaders — seriously.
“She valued my opinion,” Press said.
Members of the county’s Board of Supervisors said they, too, were caught off guard by the announcement. Despite her annual differences with the county over funding for schools, Garza had given no indication that she was unhappy, they said.
Garza seemed eager to start another school year during a summer retreat with county supervisors just before classes started, they said.
“I did not see this coming,” said Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock), who has children attending Fairfax County schools and first learned about Garza’s resignation when she sent an email to parents announcing her departure. “When she and the school board signed a new contract, I assumed that meant she was going to be staying for a while.”
However, Cook added that he’s not concerned.
“The heart of the schools are the teachers,” he said. “Superintendents are important, but the schools are going to be fine and they will find a new superintendent.”
Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) said Garza’s departure is “disappointing.”
“I thought she was a good leader for the schools,” Foust said, crediting Garza for securing more funding from the county government to deal with overcrowding in some schools and a steady departure of teachers for higher-paying districts. “I think she was pretty pleased with what we were able to do for the schools last year.”
School board member Dalia Palchik said several board members began to cry when Garza announced she’d be leaving.
“We’re all very happy for her but she really has set a high bar,” Palchik said. “It will be hard shoes to fill. After everything she’s done for us these past couple of years, we knew sooner or later that she would be courted. I was hoping it would be later rather than sooner.”
Superintendent tenures average about three years nationwide, making Garza’s term in Fairfax a common length, though her predecessor in the county led the schools for about a decade. Several Washington area school districts have seen turnover in recent years: D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson leaves next month, and Alexandria City, and Loudoun, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties all have hired new superintendents within the past three years.
Garza said the Battelle job came “at the perfect time in my career” — she’s been an educator for three decades — and said she will look back fondly on her days in Fairfax.
“I certainly wish it had been longer,” Garza said. “But to some extent it was long enough. I think there were some great things that got accomplished that had been daunting challenges to the school system prior and we got a lot of those things checked off the list. I think the future is very bright for Fairfax County public schools.”
She said she is most proud of the leadership team she built, including the principal ranks within the county’s 220 schools: “That gives me a lot of confidence that everything’s going to continue. This school system is humming along.”
Schultz was on the board that hired Garza a little more than three years ago, traveling with a team of Fairfax County school officials to Lubbock to see Garza in action. Schultz said she is bracing for another tough process.
“I dread going through another superintendent search,” Schultz said.
Evans wrote that the School Board plans to soon name an interim superintendent and will develop a plan for a replacement search. Garza said in a statement that she plans to assist the school board in the leadership transition.
Board member Ryan McElveen also lamented Garza’s departure, saying she would be difficult to replace.
“We’ll be looking for another Karen Garza,” McElveen said. “Having done this before, I can attest to the fact that they’re not easy to find.”
This story has been updated.