This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Longtime Philadelphia schools’ spokesman Fernando Gallard is departing the District after 13 years, six different District leaders, and nearly perpetual turmoil.
With the District, albeit temporarily, working with a slight fund balance and not facing an immediate crisis, he said he thought the time was right for an exit.
"It’s been a long tour, and I want to do something different," he said in an interview.
Gallard, a native of Nicaragua, joined the District in 2003, drawn by "the vision Paul Vallas had set forward to improve the schools." He answered an ad for a bilingual spokesperson and rose to head the office. He now has the title "Deputy Chief, Office of Communications."
His job has been nigh impossible: presenting the District’s best face even as it closed schools en masse, cut key positions such as counselors and nurses, fought with the teachers’ union or charter operators. He has faced reporters during a cheating scandal and a crisis in hiring substitute teachers.
Gallard has had to deal with student abductions and suicides, assaults on teachers, and the ethnically tinged violence that engulfed South Philadelphia High School in 2009.
Through all of this, he presented a professional, calm demeanor, always maintaining a respectful relationship even when he couldn’t or didn’t provide the requested information.
He remembers most the gut-wrenching incidents when he had to be a buffer during times of tragedy.
"I had a situation when a child took his life, at Germantown High School," he said. "My job was to go in there and bring a sense of calm and say, ‘I will take care of whatever is going on outside, TV cameras and radio and such, and you, the principal, take care of what is going on inside.’ That was usually how I would operate.
"Whenever a student or staff member got hurt, that was very difficult to deal with personally. You have to find a place inside of you."
At the same time, he said, "How to make a difference with individuals, how to help principals, staff members and schools when an emergency happens, when there’s a media crisis, those are the times when this job meant something beyond a position and a paycheck."
He said that every superintendent or CEO he worked with, except for current Superintendent William Hite, looked at the crisis of the day and told him at one point that they’d had it.
"They’d say, ‘This is it, it’s time for me to move on.’ And I had to say, ‘This issue will go away, we have to move forward and try to do our best.’"
As he saw it, he had to manage wary school leaders and principals on one side and demanding reporters on the other. The key, he said, was to maintain trust among all of them and never lie.
"I needed to get people to trust me when I said, ‘Yes, I can speak with this reporter. Yes, I can tell them this and they are not going to run with it and do something completely different.’ Reporters are professionals out to do a job. My job is to be that go-between."
He said he would remind people that "We are a public institution, we have to be held accountable. If it is public information, it should be made available. If not, we should say that. There has got to be trust."
Besides Vallas and Hite, Gallard has worked under Tom Brady, Leroy Nunery, Thomas Knudsen, and Arlene Ackerman.
They all had different styles. Vallas was voluble and would call at all hours, but he would say anything and was always accessible to the press. Ackerman was much more guarded and brought in her own communications team, which raised different challenges.
Said Hite in a statement: “Fernando will be sorely missed. In the face of difficult times he was a true professional who never forgot that our work is about improving the lives of the children of Philadelphia.”
Over the years, Gallard sometimes led the communications shop while permanent heads came and went. One lasted just a week. When people were fired or left, he would be asked to step in.
Sometimes, there was a huge office to draw on; during his tenure, it reached a peak of 21 people. Today, there are three people handling what he said can reach 500 press calls a month and an average of one press release or advisory every two days.
Before joining the District in 2003, Gallard worked in private industry and for the gubernatorial transition team of Ed Rendell. He also worked for Rendell when he was mayor, rising to lead his Business Action Team.
His family left Nicaragua when he was a boy. His father was head of the country’s office of tourism under Anastasio Somoza Debayle and was asked to manage international relief funds after a devastating 1972 earthquake. When the elder Gallard discovered that funds were being stolen, he ran afoul of the dictator and the family fled to El Salvador, which was also in turmoil.
In El Salvador, Gallard’s father set up the first tourism and convention bureau in Central America, but with the outbreak of the civil war there, it had no business. The family moved to Fairfax County, Virginia, where Gallard attended middle and high school before getting his undergraduate degree at Drexel University.
Gallard said he plans to open his own media relations firm.
"I am an immigrant. I am a refugee. Maybe I’ll do something to help those communities," he said. "The immigration issue, I am very much interested in."
Gallard’s departure means an overhaul of the District’s communications apparatus. Raven Hill, one of the two other people in the office, also plans to leave. She will take a job as public information officer for the school district in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Hite recently hired political and communications consultant Kevin Geary to be the District’s chief of external relations.
Gallard’s last day will be Aug. 4.
"It’s a big, busy, complex system, and there are a lot of great people doing amazing work," he said. "Sometimes it’s hard to see it, but they’re there."