By Brianna Lusk
Valley Women Writer
4:05 PM PST, February 22, 2011
Believe it or not, Erin Garcia says balancing a $5 million school district budget is 10 times harder than her past experience of managing a $500 million satellite communications system for the United States Air Force.
Though she is comfortably seated behind a mahogany desk, Garcia has endured personal challenges and come a long way to achieve her adolescent dreams of working in the accounting field.
As the director of fiscal advisory services for the Imperial County Office of Education, she faces one of the toughest economic climates to date and a multitude of school districts trying to make due with shoestring budgets.
“The way the funding works for schools in California is very complicated. I love to help the districts get their job done,” Garcia says. “We are going through a crisis, and I feel privileged to assist and come up with ideas for funding.”
Recently promoted to the director position in November, Garcia has worked for the department for more than two years as the assistant director and was formerly the Chief Business Official for the Seeley Union School District.
But Garcia’s love for checks and balances started at an early age when she was involved in 4-H, and selling her animals at the fair was a lesson in setting goals and reaching them.
“I’ve always been financially minded. I knew my parents couldn’t pay for college so I found a way to do it. I saved my money from the animals I sold and looked for scholarships,” she recalls.
Despite not having any family in the military, Garcia decided to join the United States Air Force after graduating from Central Union High School and obtained an ROTC scholarship to pay for her degree in accounting. She did not enjoy all the aspects of being in the military, like boot camp, for example, but the disciplined lifestyle fit into her love of having things structured and organized.
“Parts of it were hard for me. My first weekend of college was not spent partying. I was doing pushups on an asphalt parking lot,” Garcia remembers
The early mornings of drill and wearing a uniform to class once a week on campus was a trying experience, she adds. After receiving her degree at the University of Washington in Seattle, Garcia achieved an officer status and, in return, received invaluable work experience at an early age.
“My parents were thrilled. They were happy that I was doing what I wanted to do. They always supported me,” Garcia says.
During her time with the military she managed a multi-million dollar communications budget. She later received her master’s in business from the University of Colorado.
It was Garcia’s personal life that would eventually convince her to leave the military. After marrying her long-distance love, Pete Garcia, who she had started dating at the end of high school, the couple made their home in Los Angeles. Garcia says it became difficult for her husband to continue to relocate time and time again, as the military often demands.
“It’s very difficult for spouses in the military to have a career that’s more than a job. We wanted a more stable life and wanted to stay in the same climate,” she says.
Garcia left the Air Force and became an investment broker for Edward Jones in Phoenix. When the economy took a dive and Erin was pregnant with the couple’s first child, they decided to head back to the Imperial Valley in 2003, where they both had roots.
“My intention was to never come back. To my surprise, I really love living here now,” Garcia says with a smile.
Married for 14 years, the couple have two girls, 3-year-old Sofia and 7-year-old Makenna. The adjustment from the bustle of big city life was quickly made. Garcia never once missed making her previously long commute to work.
“It’s a waste of your life to sit in a car for three hours a day. It is a breath of fresh air now. I have my life back,” she says.
The Imperial resident now lives one street over from her mother and stepfather, who, along with her mother-in-law, help with shuttling her daughters to preschool and activities. Family time is abundant, although Pete’s evening work schedule means the couple balances exhaustion with ensuring family oriented activities are planned when they are together.
“We’re used to it. We have pure commitment, we’re going to do what it takes no matter what,” Garcia explains.
A few extra hours of time together means going for bike rides with the kids, and Garcia also uses her time off to scrapbook, attend church and relieve stress by exercising.
At work, Garcia’s responsibility at ICOE is a daunting one. Garcia manages the fiscal oversight for all the school districts and aids in reviewing budgets once they are submitted for approval. Money from the government is first filtered through her office before being allocated to the districts. She also oversees attendance reporting and is responsible for bringing issues facing the state that impact the schools to the local level.
“This is not an easy job,” Garcia says. “But I love being able to give guidance and help business managers at the districts share ideas on how we can get through this. We have a lot of those talks.”
Brent Watson, Garcia’s former supervisor and the person who vacated the position she now holds, says Garcia’s dedication to providing the right information is unmatched.
“She’s all business, but once you get to know her, her amazing personality shines through. That personality is what helps her do what she does now. People become comfortable with her and they open up and ask her questions,” Watson adds. “She’s developed some great friendships with the school districts.”
Watson, who now works as the assistant superintendent of business services at the El Centro Elementary School District, says Garcia’s biggest challenge is assisting school districts through this difficult time of tight budgets.
“She has a good handle on what the districts need to do and what’s happening at the state level,” Watson continues. “She can take a situation that is tricky and get them through it.”
Though Garcia says she wishes politics could be kept out of the conversation about school budgets, she challenges herself to communicate necessary budget changes in a way that helps business managers understand.
“When I can help them figure something out and make their job easier, that’s great,” Garcia adds.
Watson says Garcia’s passion for balancing each account line is genuine and at the core of why she is perfectly suited for her position.
She also has an uncanny ability to laugh and make others laugh, even at the most stressful of moments.
“You can hear her all the way down the hall. She gets the entire office laughing,” Watson says. “Once you get to know the person behind the numbers, she’s even more valuable.”
Garcia’s dedication to her work is very personal. More than just fulfilling her longtime dream of becoming an accountant, she is inspired by what she describes as a responsibility to the kids who attend the schools throughout the county.
“I went to school here. I believe in great public schools,” Garcia says.
She admits she could never follow in her mother’s footsteps of being a teacher, she says with a laugh, but she is “happy I can be in a support role.”
“We have a responsibility to do everything we can to use the money we get in an efficient manner and give kids a great education. I still think that’s possible,” Garcia notes. “I love this job. I feel like this is what I was meant to do.”
Copyright © 2013, Imperial Valley Press