A good rep
CUSD unrest hasn’t tempered student representative’s interest in politics
Several times over the last couple of years, the strongest, most intelligent questions from the Chico school board dais came from its youngest voice—the student representative.
Michael Garcia, who graduated this month from Pleasant Valley High School, has served two terms as the student rep to the Chico Unified School District Board of Trustees. At the last board meeting he offered his good-bye thoughts and hopes that the district and its teachers union can compromise and avert a strike.
“All of you truly work for the students of this district,” he pointed out at the June 20 meeting. He also took the opportunity to suggest that trustees visit a different school site each month and always vote their consciences.
Garcia became a recurring force at board meetings in early 1999, when teachers were lobbying for more money and the district was set to cut millions of dollars’ worth of programs.
The spark, he said in an interview, “was the cut to my health class my sophomore year. It put a stone in my path to college.”
CUSD-watchers still grin at the memory of Garcia shooting barbs at the then-interim superintendent: “And you, Dr. Stremple, with your $9,000-a-month salary.”
The now-18-year-old’s style has since mellowed into that of an informed, thoughtful public speaker.
Starting in his junior year, Garcia traded his spectator role for that of participant when he served two terms as the student rep. The role is usually little more than honorary, giving a teen the dubious pleasure of spending several hours sitting in the City Council Chambers next to the real trustees. Garcia called it “window dressing to make it look like there was a student opinion.” But Garcia, though always respectful, wasn’t one to sit quietly.
During the last school board election, he moderated a student-led debate among candidates and even considered making endorsements. He helped organize a boardroom protest—including students from rival Chico High—in favor of reducing class sizes, complete with signs calling for “no more 34.”
And though a student rep’s vote is only advisory, Garcia was the only one at the board’s June 20 meeting to vote against the resolutions giving the superintendent extensive powers in the case of a teachers’ strike. It was too soon to go that far, he figured. (Garcia is frustrated that in his time alongside the trustees, “I’ve never, ever seen a split decision on the board. They all have different opinions, but they vote all the same.")
At the same meeting, his innocent query about who was telling the truth about cancelled teacher contract negotiation meetings—a question likely on the minds of many in the audience, but unspoken—prompted a spirited debate among administrators and the teachers’ union president.
Garcia has met with the superintendent, two board members and the union president and come to the conclusion that neither side is completely in the right. “The teachers can’t have what they’re asking for, and the district can afford more than it’s offered,” Garcia said.
A couple of years ago, Garcia admits, he had the luxury of being extreme in his activism. “It was easier then,” he said, when he didn’t know as much about the system.
Eileen Robinson, the president of the classified employees’ union, characterized Garcia’s growth as he learned to “step back and gather information from both sides of an issue. He became more open-minded and quickly developed a ‘big picture’ capability that many adults fail to master.”
Robinson, calling Garcia “bright, fearless, principled and trustworthy,” said he “empowered many who had never even dreamed of playing the activist role.”
Rick Anderson, whose seat on the dais was next to Garcia’s, also praised the student rep: “He has always been passionate about his views and championed them whenever he could. I’ve seen him grow in his ability to appreciate and address complex issues.”
Garcia, Anderson said, “has embraced his role as a student representative on the board and has voted his conscience.”
Garcia isn’t leaving the Chico political scene just yet. This fall, he’ll be a political- science major at Chico State University. He’d like to get more involved in politics, perhaps on an international level, and maybe intern at the Capitol.
Garcia’s mother, Michelle, said she is “very proud” of her son, as is his father, Tim. His grandparents—Chuck and Shirley White of Cohasset—have been very supportive of his pursuits, even as they warned him politics can be a dirty business.
“He’s been motivated since kindergarten, I think,” Michelle Garcia said. His grandfather died last month, but he had enjoyed playfully quizzing Michael about issues like the Florida election debacle, or the teachers’ contract negotiations. “My dad was always turning the tables on him and making him think more than he thought he could,” she said.
Michael Garcia says his motivation is simple: "The students have taken a back seat lately," he said, and they should be—as the district’s mission statement says—the first priority.