For months, a high-profile head-hunting firm searched the nation for a new superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. On Monday evening, the Board of Education gave the job to a candidate who was part of the district all along: Chief Deputy Supt. Michelle King.
Some education experts cheered the decision. Others winced. Few thought that finding a leader for the district was an easy task.
One candidate, Miami's school superintendent, was recruited but said he didn't want the job. A former Montgomery County, Md., schools chief backed away, calling L.A. Unified “a total mess.”
Among those raising questions about the insider choice was UC Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller. “Is this a fresh beginning or is it more of the same?” he asked.
The school board had wanted a unanimous decision to emphasize strong support for a new leader, and members split over several finalists before uniting in a 7-0 vote for King.
Many in the district consider King, whose current district salary is $303,505, a reliable choice because she came up through the system.
“We didn't know the long and winding road would lead us to our own door when we started,” said school board President Steve Zimmer. “It was the right road and the right door.”
King, 54, began her ascent into district leadership as a respected high school principal, then kept a low profile as a senior administrator. Her views on where she would like to take Los Angeles Unified remained a mystery — as is protocol within the $7-billion bureaucracy, at least for administrators who aren't in charge.
But board members said they appreciated her knowledge of L.A. Unified, which, they concluded, would allow her to tackle the school system's problems without delay.
She replaces Ramon C. Cortines, who retired Jan. 2 after serving three times as leader of the nation's second-largest school system.
Charles Kerchner, a research professor at Claremont Graduate University, hailed the choice as a vote for stability, saying previous outsiders for the top job had not fared well — including former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, retired Vice Adm. David L. Brewer and educator John Deasy.
“The notion that an outsider could come in and, by dint of personality and power, turn this ship around has been manifestly unsuccessful for the last 15 years,” Kerchner said.
David Plank, a Stanford University professor and the executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, said the selection of an outsider would have signaled an unrealistic expectation that someone new could solve the district's problems. “It almost never happens,” Plank said.
David Rattray of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce said King's deep experience with L.A. Unified as a student, teacher and administrator would ensure there would be no delay in moving forward. He said he had worked for years with King on such projects as reorganizing high schools into smaller learning communities and found her a “consummate team player” able to build relationships with students and parents, business and labor groups, and community members.
“This is one of those rare moments where you get the best candidate and a fast-moving start,” Rattray said.
But others questioned whether King would bring the new ideas, bold action and deft political skills they believe the district needs for such challenges as declining student achievement, a budget crisis and highly polarized politics.
Antonia Hernandez, chief executive of the California Community Foundation, said King's educational philosophy was unclear because she has mostly stayed in the background while serving as a top deputy to both Deasy and Cortines.
One of the finalists, St. Louis Supt. Kelvin Adams, in contrast, had established a clear record of leadership and an ability to bring together charter schools, union leaders and other interests, she said.
“Does she have leadership skills? Political savvy? Is she willing to rock the boat or is it about maintaining the status quo — and the status quo is not where we want to be,” Hernandez said. “She's not known publicly for being out there. A good foot soldier is a great insider but is that what LAUSD needs at this critical time?”
John Rogers, a UCLA education professor, praised the board's choice of a woman and an African American. But he said King does not offer a fresh face or national stature, which could make it more difficult to “reset the conversation” among conflicting interests.
In recent years the district has suffered from inconsistent direction as political factions have battled for control in the nation's most costly school board elections. Even without political turmoil, the job is complex.
L.A. Unified draws its 650,000 students from 28 cities and unincorporated areas. Nearly 3 in 4 students are Latino; most are from low-income families; collectively, students come from homes that speak more than 90 native languages; and many are learning to speak English.
State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said L.A. Unified's shaky financial condition is the state's major concern. An independent review panel in November found the district faced a $333-million deficit in 2017-18, with the shortfall projected to nearly double by 2020.
Exacerbating the district's financial risk is a proposal, developed by philanthropist Eli Broad, that called for enrolling half of district students in charter schools over the next eight years. Because schools receive state and federal money based on enrollment, a rapid exodus of students could threaten the district's solvency.
District officials solicited public input on desired qualities of a new leader through 9,400 survey responses and more than 100 public meetings attended by 1,400 participants.
Board members also considered Adams, Fremont Supt. Jim Morris, San Francisco Supt. Richard Carranza — who withdrew from consideration — and Jim Berk, a business executive who early in his career was a teacher and principal in L.A. Unified.
If the board approves King's contract on Tuesday, as anticipated, it will mark the ninth time in 20 years that the district has hired a new leader. The board approved spending $250,000 on the selection process, which took five months to complete.
The Times receives funding for its Education Matters digital initiative from the California Endowment, the Wasserman Foundation and the Baxter Family Foundation. The California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles administer grants from the Broad Foundation to support this effort. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.
Times staff writers Joy Resmovits and Zahira Torres contributed to this report.