For Domingo Garcia, his presence in the upcoming Democratic primary for school board is something of a surprise. At 64, he's become an elder statesman for Rochester's Hispanic community and boasts an impeccable activist resume --- involvement with organizations like the Ibero American Action League (which he helped found), the National Puerto Rican Coalition, and Action for a Better Community. But elected office wasn't in the cards, he thought, until last year, when he unsuccessfully sought his party's backing for a school board run.
"I decided that I would run for the school board because I thought I could make a contribution just based on my experience and expertise," Garcia says of the decision. He lost, but when the opportunity to fill a vacancy arose this year, he accepted.
The experience and expertise he's talking about come from his top-level management positions in the non-profit and business worlds.
"When you run companies, you deal with critical issues such as budgeting, and redistribution of resources, personnel matters, management, policy setting, the relationship between a board and a chief executive," says Garcia, who works as the president and chief executive officer of the Ibero American Investors. "That's what I've done for the past 35 years. I always worked for a board of directors."
Like other board candidates past and present, Garcia sees himself as both a reformer and an advocate on behalf of the disenfranchised.
"I'm sensitive to the needs of black and Hispanic children. I have advocated on their behalf all my life, at different levels, both at the national level and at the local level," he says. "You know I was a pain in the behind to the school board whenever there were issues that affected our kids. So I'm fairly conscious of what our kids need in terms of educational services."
Most of those needs --- especially for minority children, he says --- stem from a single problem: poverty.
"Poverty has a lot do [with] why they don't do so well," he says. "When people are more conscious of putting bread on the table than sitting down and reading a book with their children, you have to acknowledge the realities of life. Getting people to stay in school and graduate has always been a challenge for blacks and Hispanics. Hispanics in the Rochester district have had the highest dropout rates of any group. And black children follow. I'm hoping we can put the mechanisms in place where we can change that trend, or at least begin to make a dent on that trend."
Garcia intends to fight his war on high drop-out rates by targeting programs at the elementary level.
"I know that in order to accomplish that you need to concentrate on kids at their earliest age, so I'm a proponent of early childhood education," he says. But Garcia is quick to point out that the district needs money to carry out any of the programs --- like the recently slashed "Dare to Care" --- he considers likely to reverse drop-out rates. In fact, he says, money is the issue that most affects the quality of education in the district, despite claims to the contrary from critics like Mayor Bill Johnson and Assemblyman David Gantt.
"Money has everything to do with it," he claims. For example, he says, the school might launch a pilot program to boost student achievement, then have to drop it as soon as it proves fruitful because of funding cuts. "So I don't understand how people perceive that you can improve a system if you're constantly cutting out the resources you need to be able to implement the kinds of programs that are really successful."
Garcia places most of the blame on state government, and the legislature in particular.
"If the [state] budget was approved in May like it's supposed to be, when the school district prepares its budget to submit it to the city, we already would have known how much money we were going to get from the state," Garcia says.
That would have given the district time to create a balanced budget, he says. Instead the district had to rely on guesswork: "Because the state legislature decides that the budget's going to be 138 days late we have no idea what the state allocation's going to be," Garcia says. "We are blamed for things that are out of our control."
Two major changes, Garcia says, could help the district live within its means.
"We would like to go into multi-year budgeting," he says. "That gives stability to the system, and it allows [the district] to put programs into place that we know are going to be funded for three to five years and we can then evaluate those programs appropriately." But without reliable revenue streams from the city, he says, "we can't do multi-year funding because we never know" how much money is available.
Another change that would at least grant the district financial independence, says Garcia, is the ability to levy taxes.
"We can't do that," he says. "The city does it, but then they want to keep the money for other things, because other things are more important. What's more important than your future? I asked Bill Johnson that. 'No the school district has to take the burden too, of not having enough resources.' Well, bullshit. You're either committed to providing a sound basic education for your children or you're not. And if you're not than say so. Let people vote you in or out based on your stand on educational policy."
Registered Democrats living in the Rochester City School District can vote in the school board seat primary election between Garcia and Elliott at their usual polling places between noon and 9 p.m. September 14. Info: Monroe County Board of Elections, 428-4550.