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Administrator Profile

A year later, bluer skies for Fairfax County schools

Superintendent Karen Garza uses collaboration and financial skills to move district forward
Superintendent Garza speaks with an elementary student. Garza hopes to reduce achievement gaps between white students and minority students.
Superintendent Garza speaks with an elementary student. Garza hopes to reduce achievement gaps between white students and minority students.

When Superintendent Karen Garza started her job at Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia last July, she had barely unpacked when she found a perfect storm of budget planning: increased enrollment, deferred retirement system contributions and a major uptick in students needing ESOL services.

Undaunted, the Texas native set out to find facts and information that helped shape a $2.5 billion spending plan the community could support.

While it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing—the final budget was cut more deeply than Garza wanted—the new superintendent will continue to gather input from others as she finds solutions.

“Everything I take to the board has been shaped by input I’ve received from about 100 groups I’ve met with to discuss the challenges we are facing,” Garza says. “I try to allow people affected by decisions to have some say in the process. It helps us make better decisions.”


Synergism is a hallmark of Garza’s leadership, and one that’s gotten high marks from both the school board that hired her and the county Board of Supervisors that provides more than 70 percent of the district’s funding, school board Chairman Ilryong Moon says.

“She has worked so hard with all the stakeholders,” Moon says. “Even supervisors who disagreed with the superintendent expressed how they appreciated her openness and willingness to engage them in the budget process, and how she was very open to their suggestions.”

Karen Garza

Fairfax County Public Schools

  • Tenure: One year
  • Schools: 189, and 7 special ed centers
  • Students: 184,625
  • Staff and faculty: 23,831
  • Per child expenditure: $13,472
  • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 28%
  • Graduation rate (2013): 92%
  • Website:

Garza says this input was especially welcome in grappling with Fairfax’s financial situation. Enrollment has grown an average of 1.7 percent a year since 2010, an increase of 15,000 students. During the same period, the need for ESOL services increased nearly 9 percent each year. And the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches has risen 4.5 percent annually to 28 percent.

Enrollment in the wealthy district is expected to reach 200,000 students by 2020 and is already home to families speaking more than 100 languages, Chief Financial Officer Susan Quinn says.

“Right off the bat, (Garza) knew we’d have significant budget challenges,” Quinn says. The cost of enrollment growth, shifting demographics and fixed costs—such as retirement system payments that must be made after being deferred starting in 2010—are outpacing revenue growth, Quinn says.

“Instead of just going to the Board of Supervisors and asking for more money, Dr. Garza approached this as a shared responsibility,” Quinn says. “We made reductions of $96 million, comparable to what we requested from the county.”

In the end, the county increased school funding by $51.5 million—$46.6 million less than Garza requested—while the state is expected to provide Fairfax another $30 million more than expected. It left the district with a $16.6 million gap that was closed, in part, by delaying step increases for teachers until later in the year.

The budget also eliminated more than 720 positions—some through attrition—and increased class sizes, but by only one student larger than this year. The money saved will fund raises that will begin to bring salaries in line with nearby districts that have lured teachers away from Fairfax, Garza says.

Additional money will be saved through reorganizing principals and other administrators “to better align our systems, improve our decision making and facilitate stronger and more differentiated support of our schools,” Garza told staff.

Education in her blood

The daughter of a now-retired college English professor, Garza knew she would go into education. “I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps, and I had so many great teachers myself, so I became an English teacher,” she says.

She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Houston at Victoria and her doctorate in educational administration from the University of Texas at Austin. After spending her early years as an elementary school teacher, Garza worked as an education specialist, curriculum director, elementary school principal and chief academic officer.

After four years as superintendent of Lubbock ISD in Texas—where she oversaw achievement gap reductions in science, math and social studies, and graduation rate increases—Garza joined Fairfax County.

Goals for Fairfax

Garza also hopes to reduce achievement gaps between her new district’s Hispanic and African-American students and their Asian and Caucasian peers. Garza has been working with county and state legislators toward funding large-scale pre-K expansion.

On a smaller scale, the district preschool program expanded by eight classes to accommodate 128 students this year, and the 2015 budget calls for at least 32 more pre-K students next year. “I’d love to see that we’re serving all income-eligible students within the next two to three years,” Garza says.

Another way Garza plans to close achievement gaps is focusing on literacy. Teachers will emphasize foundational skills such as “academic vocabulary”—terms such as observe, approximate, compare and other words students will encounter in textbooks and classrooms.

To increase graduation rates, Garza created the “Portrait of a Graduate” program to guide educators in focusing on skills that will best prepare students for success after high school. A task force of educators, parents and civic and business leaders determined that a well-prepared graduate has to be a communicator, collaborator, critical thinker, and a self-directed and responsible individual.

“We are just amazed at how good she is,” says Moon, the school board chairman. “She anticipates problems and prevents them or minimizes the impact. She is learning quickly, and she will become even more confident in laying out what FCPS must do to improve.”

Entry plan

To help accelerate her own learning and get integrated quickly into the district, Garza prepared an “entry plan” focused on school board relations, critical issue analysis, and effective communication and community engagement. And she developed a “Citizen’s Guide to Understanding the School Budget.”

She also met with teachers, parents, faith-based organizations and residents. Community members expressed their criticisms and suggestions. “While we’ve had a lot of success, we have to continually reexamine what we’re doing to meet the needs of all students,” Garza says. “The community plays an important role in those discussions.”

Regina Whitmer is a freelance writer in New Jersey.