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Search firm must give L.A. Unified a mostly free do-over in hunt for schools chief

Search firm must give L.A. Unified a mostly free do-over in hunt for schools chief
Hank Gmitro, standing, of Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, leads a public forum in 2015, during the previous search for an L.A. Unified superintendent. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The unexpected departure of Los Angeles schools Supt. Michelle King — after less than two years on the job — has triggered a rarely used clause in the contract of an executive search firm: its warranty.

The contract the school district signed with Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates stated that the firm would not charge a consulting fee for a new search if the superintendent were to leave the job within two years.

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The fee for the first search was $160,000 plus approved expenses. This one is supposed to be all but free.

"HYA has agreed to honor the provision in their earlier agreement to perform a subsequent recruitment at no charge — save certain costs," said L.A. Unified General Counsel David Holmquist. "We are finalizing a new contract to reflect this commitment while the [school] board considers the scope of the recruitment effort."

Officials at the L.A. Unified School District announced King's selection on Jan. 11, 2016. Just days shy of two years later, on Jan. 5 of this year, King released a statement saying that she has cancer and would be stepping down. She was last at work in early September, when she went on medical leave. She appointed Vivian Ekchian as an interim replacement in October.

That last superintendent search looked at candidates from around the country, but at the end of the confidential process, the Board of Education chose King, then deputy superintendent, who'd spent her entire career in the district.

HYA consultants, including Hank Gmitro, foreground, address the Board of Education in 2015.
HYA consultants, including Hank Gmitro, foreground, address the Board of Education in 2015. (Howard Blume / Los Angeles Times)

The district still will incur some expenses related to the search, which could include the costs of organizing community forums, if officials decide to go down that route again. In the last search, these forums — overseen by the consultants — were held across the school system, though most were poorly attended. Still, the feedback was dutifully collected and reviewed by the Board of Education.

On Tuesday afternoon, after the board met in closed session, board President Monica Garcia said in an interview that this time around, the consultants would not be leading or participating in public gatherings. Instead, board members would handle outreach in their own districts.

"Every board member will be engaging stakeholders in a variety of ways," Garcia said, adding that they'll also review the public comments from the last search.

Board member Nick Melvoin said he's already had informal sessions in his district, and that he plans to have more.

Before the search that led to King, the Board of Education selected three superintendents without a formal process for public input or participation, although civic leaders and philanthropists exerted influence behind the scenes. L.A. has had six superintendents since 2008, counting Acting Supt. Ekchian. The school board affirmed that Ekchian would stay on in her role days after King announced she would be stepping down.

The provision in the contract for the search that led to King's appointment stated its warranty as follows:

If the Superintendent departs from the position during the first year under any circumstances or within two years if the majority of the Board is still in place, HYA will conduct a new search for the Board at no additional cost barring expenses.

The principals of HYA, which is based in Illinois, are former school superintendents who rely on their contacts — and their good standing — in education.

HYA could have tried to void its warranty on a technicality — because King said when she stepped down that she would "retire by June 30," which is well after the end of the warranty period. (After going on medical leave, she began to use the paid sick days she accumulated over her long career.)

The firm couldn't have extricated itself using the clause about the school board. Since King got the job, only two of seven board seats have changed hands.

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That small turnover, however, led to a big shift in board power, which could have threatened King's tenure in the job had she stayed healthy.

Twitter: @howardblume

UPDATES:

5:55 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from board members.

This article was originally published at 2:05 p.m.

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