Apr. 18—Santa Fe Public Schools found its "love match" Saturday from within its own administration.
After a grueling eight-hour session of interviews with six finalists, the school board unanimously approved the hire of Hilario "Larry" Chavez Jr. as its next superintendent.
Chavez, 44, the district's associate superintendent of athletics/activities and school support, will replace outgoing Superintendent Veronica García at the end of the 2020-21 school year.
García announced her retirement in March after five years in the position.
Chavez accepted a one-year contract with a salary of $150,000 a year and will take over July 1.
He has been in his current position since 2020 and was the assistant superintendent of athletics/activities and school support in 2019-20.
The board's decision Saturday continued Chavez's quick rise through the district's ranks since he was hired in 2017 as the athletic and activities director.
Prior to that, he was the principal and director of education at the state Department of Health's Sequoyah Adolescent Treatment Center in Albuquerque from 2015-17. He also spent five months as a special-education administrator for the state Public Education Department in 2015.
His longest tenure was as special-education coordinator for the U.S. Department of Defense Virtual High School from 2008-15. Chavez holds a master's degree in special education from New Mexico Highlands University.
During his introduction in an online meeting Saturday, Chavez expressed gratitude for the board's decision, adding he intends to be "a sponge" during the final two months of García's administration. Chavez said his goal from the time he entered the district was to learn as much as he could and match it with tireless work ethic.
"No matter what title I was under, I wanted to make sure that they understood I was going to do everything with a commitment and passion, and it was always done in the best interests of students and families," Chavez said.
School board President Kate Noble said Chavez's experience in a multitude of areas, from athletics to curriculum to data collection, resonated with her. She added Chavez played a role in the district's improvement in the graduation rate, which reached a record 86.3 percent for the Class of 2020.
Even more important was his ability to learn quickly.
"He really is the whole package when you look at some of the input we got," Noble said. "There was what he did with athletics and the culture there, and what he has done with data and leading our high schools. He is the guy who oversees the high schools, and you see they had a good graduation rate. The way he picked up things on finances and the budget and clearly understanding it, in terms of the different funding sources and uses, was impressive, too."
García echoed those sentiments and said she grew to trust Chavez with bigger projects and initiatives.
He and fellow Associate Superintendent Vanessa Romero, who also was a finalist, collaborated with school leaders and district administrators to help adjust teaching and grading practices after the district revealed more than 38 percent of its students from the third grade and above failed at least one class or subject during the first nine weeks of the school year.
García said Chavez also played a key role in the transition of the Academy at Larragoite into Desert Sage Academy.
"He is inquisitive. He wants to learn," García said. "He can be very strategic and global, but he also has an eye for detail, and it's those small details that can sink ships. He is meticulous in his work, yet he is very collaborative."
Kristy Janda Wagner, district deputy superintendent of operations and school support, who also was a finalist, praised the hire and added she was thrilled for Chavez. She said she did not feel any disappointment about not getting the superintendent post because it was a "red letter" day for the district. She added that members of the administrative team under García respect and like each other and will support each other, regardless of the circumstances.
"If you could see me right now, I'm smiling ear to ear," Janda Wagner said.
The same could be said for Chavez's parents.
Larry Chavez Sr., who is retiring this year as the athletic director for Rio Rancho Public Schools, said his wife cried when she informed him their son got the position. The elder Chavez said his son has the traits many good administrators need, especially the ability to work with different groups of people. He attributed that quality to his athletic background.
Larry Chavez Jr., a 1996 Santa Rosa High School graduate, earned an athletic scholarship to New Mexico Highlands University's cross-country team. He also was a star player for Santa Rosa's basketball and baseball teams.
"It teaches you how to handle different types of personalities, not only with your teammates but as an athletic administrator," Larry Chavez Sr. said.
"Your coaches have many different types of personality traits, and you learn how to handle them," Chavez Sr. said. "I think that's why you see so many people with athletic backgrounds succeed when it comes to the administrative side of education."
The younger Chavez said one of the most pressing issues his administration will have to tackle is the district's declining enrollment, which dipped to 11,891 this year. That was a 600-student drop compared to the previous year, he said.
Because districts' budgets are tied to student enrollment, the dip could lead to significant cuts for next year, although Chavez said money from the latest federal stimulus package could help offset those losses.
Chavez said the district needs to accentuate its successes when trying to recruit new students and convince families that have left the district to return.
"We have to be innovative. We have to think ahead and be able to meet the needs of the community, so we can really recruit those kids back to Santa Fe Public Schools," he said. "It might be in-person [learning], it might be online, but we have to have those options for our families to consider."