By Rick Orlov and George B. Sánchez, Staff Writers | LA Daily News
Board president Monica Garcia attends a school board meeting at... (David Crane/Staff Photographer)
8 Dec 2008 -- To anyone who knows her, it is no surprise that Mónica García is in the middle of a political firestorm.
As president of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, García has emerged as the force behind efforts to remove Superintendent David L. Brewer III in the middle of his four-year contract.
Supporters say García is a fierce advocate for the Latino community and the disenfranchised, who has never shied away from a fight. But critics say her political ambitions have made it difficult for her to act independently of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a longtime ally.
The Mayor's Office said he had nothing to do with last week's failed attempt to oust Brewer, when García a could not bring together all seven board members to vote on his contract. But some school district watchers say the mayor, who is widely thought to favor hiring a new superintendent, has considerable influence with the current board.
"Had the mayor not been in favor of wanting Brewer to retire, then the board majority, starting with Mónica García, would likely not have moved to oust the superintendent," said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.
Praising García as a passionate advocate for children, Villaraigosa said he talks with her often, but he would not discuss any conversations regarding Brewer.
"This is a decision for her and her school board to make, and I trust their judgment," Villaraigosa said.
García's bungled effort to remove Brewer, who is African-American, raised questions about her political skills and drew outrage from leaders of Los Angeles' African-American community, including Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, the board's only black member.
García declined to be interviewed for this story. Her office said she would not discuss the issue because it is a personnel matter that the board will take up again Tuesday. While García is thought to have enough votes to remove Brewer, it is unclear how each member might line up.
Several sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said García approached Brewer about leaving only after other school board members pushed her to begin discussions with him about a possible buyout.
The talks apparently fell apart when García and Brewer could not agree on a departure date. The situation was further complicated when García prodded the board to discuss Brewer's removal at a regularly scheduled meeting last Tuesday when LaMotte was out of town. LaMotte has charged the board with conspiring behind her back to remove Brewer.
"This ranks with the payroll fiasco," said Scott Folsom, vice chairman of the district's bond oversight committee that oversees school construction, referring to a computer software system that issued inaccurate checks to teachers for a year or more. "It should have been handled better. This is a failure of raw politics."
Among other things, the poorly executed plan created the perception of racial politics at the top of the nation's second-largest school district. García has become the heavy in the drama, partly because she is known for stepping up when others back away to push an agenda that she says is for the kids, supporters say.
They add that her passion is driven by a genuine sense of social justice and a first-hand awareness of the value of education and the privileges it affords, having graduated from the University of California at Berkeley after growing up in East Los Angeles.
García was elected to the board in 2006 to succeed her former boss, Jose Huizar, after his election to the City Council. She became only the third Latina to serve on the board in its 155-year history.
Huizar met García at Berkeley, where she was interested in access to education for poor students. García was the first person he turned to when he was elected to the Board of Education.
"As a school board member, you don't have a big staff and Mónica did the work of three people," Huizar said. "She understood education policy, but she also could work with the community."
Huizar credits her with helping to resolve the myriad safety issues at Belmont High School and overseeing the construction of two new high schools in East Los Angeles. After he was elected to the City Council, he said he had to convince García to run for his school board seat.
"I don't believe she really has any political ambitions, although she's a natural at politics," Huizar said.
Assemblyman John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, said García is modest, a rare trait among politicians.
"She is not someone who ever needed to take center stage," said Pérez, who was endorsed by Garc%iacute; a in his run for the seat previously held by Fabian Nuñez. "For her, the work matters more than the credit."
While Huizar was focused on many of the details involving the LAUSD's building project, it was García who was credited with developing the "diploma for all" policy of the district, to reduce the dropout rate and make sure students graduated and were prepared for the work force.
García was easily elected to the board, with the backing of Villaraigosa and Huizar, and after a year on the board, she was able to elbow Marlene Canter out of the presidency. She was re-appointed by her colleagues to head the board in July. García is running unopposed for re-election on March 3.
The school board has been the starting point for many politicians who have moved on to the City Council, the state Assembly and other state offices. There is speculation that Garcí a has her eyes on higher office, and much of her political strength lies in her ties to Huizar and Villaraigosa. She supported the mayor's attempt to take over the district until it was squashed by the courts.
"There's no question she has a strong relationship with the mayor," said Regalado. "It was him and his allies that got her elected."
Board members Tamar Galatzan, Yolie Flores Aguilar and Marlene Canter have all said Villaraigosa's influence on the board of education is only a public perception. All say they were not contacted by the mayor regarding Brewer's removal.
Other board members did not respond to requests for comment.
Former board member David Tokofsky, who voted to hire Brewer in 2006, said outside influence on board members is normal, but it should not guide the decision of the board president.
But Maria Casillas, a veteran LAUSD educator and close friend of García's, said a relationship between the school board and local elected officials is key to real education reform.
"No matter what, you need a network between elected officials and policy makers. The education laws are not made by the board; they're made in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.," she said. "Brewer and García are restricted by the decisions of policy makers."
Recognizing García's willingness to express her opinion, appearing with Villaraigosa and lending her name to allies, such as her support for Pérez, Regalado said García embodies the "political animal."
"A lot of times, these endorsements are strategic, but hers are heartfelt and can only help her in the future," Regalado said.
Born and raised in East Los Angeles, Garc a attended Ramona Convent in Alhambra and went on to Berkeley, where she received bachelor of arts degrees in Chicano studies and political science. Later, she earned a master's in social work from the University of Southern California.
Outside East Los Angeles and its climate of Chicano activism, García said she became aware of privilege, class and culture while a Berkeley student.
At a speech earlier this year to the Studio City Chamber of Commerce, she was quoted as joking that it was at Berkeley that she realized, "I was a person of color, which I had no idea. (I was) shocked that my life was so much in peril" growing up as a Latina in a working-class family in the barrio.
Those experiences, say her advocates, resonate in her work, including the recent attempt to remove Brewer.
Noting that the Daily News and the Los Angeles Times have editorialized for the removal of Brewer, Casillas said García's move should be welcomed by the press. But the timing, many have said off the record, was poor.
With the district facing the most severe fiscal crisis in recent history, the bond committee's Folsom said Brewer is a leader among education officials in fighting budget cuts in Sacramento. To remove him now will only take district attention away from the impending budget crisis.
"I have not seen true leadership from García on the budget and this is a huge diversion from where the board's focus should be," Folsom said. "Real leaders lead from the middle and build consensus. That hasn't happened here."