Morgan Hill Unified School District’s new superintendent hasn’t even started her new job yet, but a local parent has already asked the board of education to reconsider the appointment of Dr. Carmen Garcia based on incidents that occurred at schools where she previously worked in southern California.
On May 18, MHUSD announced that the board had unanimously appointed Garcia to the superintendent’s post starting July 1. The appointment followed a nationwide recruiting process, according to MHUSD staff.
Following that announcement, Sabri Berisha, a parent of a student at MHUSD’s Barrett Elementary School, sent a letter to board members describing two controversies that happened in school districts where Garcia held leadership positions: unpopular hiring practices in San Marcos Unified School District and the sexual abuse of a student at San Diego High School that led to criminal charges against a teacher and a pending lawsuit against the district.
Garcia has not been named or accused in any lawsuit or criminal charges. Berisha’s letter does not claim she violated any school or education code guidelines.
Still, he wonders if the incidents are related to Garcia’s leadership.
“Should the board, in their wisdom, decide to ignore the information presented, I will not hesitate to start the process to recall the entire Board of Education,” Berisha’s letter threatens. “That said, I trust that the board will carefully consider this letter and reconsider the appointment of Dr. Garcia.”
Garcia could not be reached for comment.
The MHUSD board stands by their appointment of Garcia, who will replace outgoing Superintendent Steve Betando. Board President Wendy Sullivan said in a statement to the Times that Garcia’s background was thoroughly vetted by the board and recruiting firm Leadership Associates.
The board and a community advisory panel conducted “multiple interviews” with Garcia before hiring her, Sullivan added.
“As part of the extensive four-month process, the recruitment firm and our board diligently vetted Dr. Garcia and her work experiences prior to her appointment,” Sullivan’s statement said. “This process included meetings with representatives from numerous groups in her prior district from school board member representatives, labor leaders, parents, teachers, classified employees to administrators.”
Still, the board takes Berisha’s grievances seriously, and “will consider any necessary steps, if any,” Sullivan wrote. “Based upon our vetting process, discussions with Dr. Garcia, and her prior experiences, it is our collective belief that her experience and vision make her the right person to lead our District.”
Garcia has been an educator for 22 years, holding various teaching and administrative positions during that time.
Her most recent job was Superintendent of San Marcos Unified School District, to which she was appointed in 2018. Teacher and administrator hiring and reassigning decisions made by Garcia were listed as a concern in Berisha’s letter, which cites links to San Diego area news articles from the Union-Tribune, Voice of San Diego and others.
Garcia resigned from SMUSD in September 2020. Her resignation letter did not offer a reason for her decision and board members have not publicly discussed such details, according to a San Diego Union-Tribune report.
But her resignation followed a series of elementary school staff hiring decisions that caused an uproar among parents, Berisha’s letter says.
In November 2019, Garcia faced hundreds of angry parents at a board meeting who were upset that she hired a new principal of San Elijo Elementary School instead of promoting the existing assistant principal, who was popular among students and parents, according to the Union-Tribune.
Garcia also drew criticism in 2019 for replacing nearly half the teachers at San Marcos Elementary School, and hiring staff from her former place of employment, San Diego High School, says a Voice of San Diego report.
Garcia defended her hiring decisions, telling parents at the time, “These enthusiastic teachers are a perfect fit for the (San Marcos Elementary) instructional program,” according to Voice of San Diego.
“Her inevitable departure came after hundreds of parents protested against her during meetings of SMUSD’s Board of Education,” says Berisha’s letter.
The unrelated sexual abuse of a 15-year-old San Diego High School student by a special education teacher is also cited by Berisha as a concern. The teacher, Juan Carlos Herrera, pleaded guilty in 2019 to 11 felonies in relation to the repeated sexual abuse, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, according to news reports.
The juvenile victim and her parent filed a lawsuit against San Diego High School and other unnamed defendants, accusing them of negligence and breach of mandatory duty in failing to stop or report the abuse.
Garcia was principal of San Diego High at the time, but she is not named or accused of wrongdoing in the lawsuit. But other San Diego High School staff are accused of having known about earlier inappropriate behavior by Herrera and failing to report it to authorities, says the complaint filed in San Diego County Superior Court.
Herrera abused the teen female victim from January 2018 to May 2019, the lawsuit says.
Garcia was a principal at San Diego High School from 2012 to October 2018, according to news reports. In October 2018, she was hired away from the high school to serve as SMUSD superintendent.
A trial in the sexual abuse lawsuit is scheduled for Nov. 5, according to paralegal Maggie Strohlein of the Pride Law Firm, which represents Herrera’s victim and her parent. Garcia will likely be called for a deposition in the coming months because she was working at San Diego High School at the time of the abuse, Strohlein said.