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L.A. Unified once again embarks on a tough search for a new superintendent

L.A. Unified once again embarks on a tough search for a new superintendent
L.A. Unified Supt. Michelle King, shown here on the first day of school in 2017, is leaving her position to receive treatment for cancer. A search is underway to find her successor. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Less than two years after members of the L.A. school board chose a superintendent from the district's ranks, they now find themselves in search of a new one — and the task may be harder than ever.

The nation's second-largest school system has a dizzying array of problems, but the board is divided on how to solve them. Meanwhile, there aren't many candidates considered qualified for such a daunting job, and those who are may be getting other offers.

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The challenge of improving large urban school districts — and of keeping the job for more than a year or two — can be seen in the job openings. New York City, the nation's largest school system, also is searching for a superintendent. So was Chicago, the third-largest district, until a new leader recently was hired.

Being a superintendent today is a "very different job than 10 or 20 years ago," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. There are "lots of high expectations, few resources and very few people on the bench who really understand education."

Supt. Michelle King recently announced that she has cancer and will not return from medical leave. A career district employee, her selection was considered an attempt by board members to restore calm and focus after years of tumult. It was also a milestone: King was the first African American woman to run the district.

But during her brief tenure, neither King nor the school board ever developed a detailed set of plans to improve the district's schools. Many wondered about the practically of her focus on "100% graduation" — her mantra while in office.

This time around, the board could choose an insider again. If it doesn't, the pool of well-regarded superintendents of other large, urban school districts is limited.

Big-city superintendents' tenures tend to be short — a 2014 study by the Council of the Great City Schools found they spend an average of just over three years in the job — and it is often difficult to determine how effective they have been.

The constant churn makes certain people perennial candidates. Some of the same names are being floated in both L.A. and New York City. They include Rudolph Crew, who led New York City's schools in the late '90s; Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools since 2008; and Andres Alonso, who was chief executive for six years of Baltimore City Public Schools before becoming a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The two big school districts' selection processes and political dynamics are markedly different.

New York City's 1,800 public schools are under mayoral control, a system that gives Mayor Bill de Blasio complete authority to choose the next chancellor. This virtually assures that candidates there will reflect de Blasio's political leanings, favoring public sector unions and more traditional approaches over market-based education reform ideas. They must also be content to finish out the remaining years of de Blasio's second term, knowing that the next mayor will probably appoint someone new.

L.A. Unified's seven-member board makes the choice, which makes it more complicated, both politically and practically. Last year's elections upended the school board's balance of power, weakening the unions' influence and empowering a four-person majority elected with the backing of wealthy charter school supporters. Charter-school advocates celebrated, hopeful that sweeping changes were coming.

Then in September, local prosecutors filed criminal charges against board member Ref Rodriguez, who is accused of laundering campaign money and is under investigation for separate conflict-of-interest allegations. Rodriguez has pleaded not guilty to the charges and he remains a voting member of the board, which has led to speculation that the existing majority could still choose a superintendent who favors aggressive changes, such as increasing the number of charter schools and using standardized tests to evaluate teachers and principals.

If Rodriguez were forced out of office, the board would have no clear majority, a possibility that could lead its members to opt for a more moderate consensus pick.

"This board is looking for long-term stability," said Carl Cohn, a former superintendent of Long Beach Unified and San Diego Unified, who now works with school districts such as L.A. Unified. "That involves navigating the politics of a board of education, successfully getting along with unions, and strong stakeholder engagement in terms of direct contact with parents and local advocacy and civil rights groups."

Candidates likely to appeal to a politically divided board can't hold extreme views on charter schools, said Pedro Noguera, a professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. "As long as the person is perceived to be neither charter hostile or overly friendly, they should not be ruled out as a candidate," he wrote in an email.

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According to multiple sources, who requested anonymity to discuss a secretive process, some names being discussed for L.A. include Miguel Santana, L.A.'s former chief administrative officer, who has advised the school board on financial matters; Joan Sullivan, chief executive officer of the Partnership for L.A. Schools, a nonprofit that oversees 18 district schools; and Matt Hill, superintendent of the Burbank Unified School District.

Candidates within the district include Chief Academic Officer Frances Gipson and Acting Supt. Vivian Ekchian.

There is recent precedent for picking a homegrown leader. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has burned through three public school chief executives during his tenure. Forrest Claypool, the latest to resign, had previously served as Emanuel's chief of staff.

In December, the mayor named Janice Jackson, one of the district's top administrators and a graduate of the city's schools, as acting chief executive officer. She was formally appointed this month.

One factor that is likely to loom large in the selection of L.A.'s next superintendent is the district's budget woes.

While New York City's public student population has held steady at 1.1 million, L.A. Unified has been losing students for more than a decade to charter schools, declining birth rates and rising housing costs that have priced low-income families out of many neighborhoods. The district's enrollment is directly linked to the amount of state funding it receives, and it is tanking. As one district official put it, L.A. Unified is losing the equivalent of a small school district each year.

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At the same time, the district's pension and retiree healthcare costs are swallowing an ever greater portion of its funding.

"L.A. will wind up bankrupt if it does not put in place a system that looks at evidence in funding programs that are successful," said Ramon Cortines, who served three separate stints as the district's superintendent. "We're past the point where a modest amount of tweaking will do the job. It won't work."

In addition to having to win over board members, superintendents here, as in other large school districts, face unending scrutiny from the media and the public, demands from labor unions and politicians, and outsized expectations. The job pays well — L.A.'s superintendent makes $350,000 a year — but is no match for private-sector salaries.

"You're being pushed in every direction by every constituency that exists," said Jean-Claude Brizard, who was named chief executive of Chicago's public schools in 2011. He resigned after 17 months.

Twitter: @annamphillips

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