Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Michelle King, whose four-month medical leave for cancer treatment left a leadership gap at a school system facing challenges on numerous fronts, won’t return to her position and plans to retire later this year, the district announced Friday.
King’s move means the new majority on the Board of Education, the first elected with substantial support from charter school backers, will immediately move to the job of selecting a leader for the nation’s second-largest school district.
Picking a leader is widely regarded as the most important task for a school board, and King’s exit occurs during a period of momentous challenge and change. The school system faces a long-term budget deficit, expired labor contracts and a rift between traditional educators and backers of charter schools, which are privately operated and growing in number. L.A. Unified already has more charters than any other school system.
Charters and district schools compete directly for students and the funding that comes with them. The new board majority is attempting a delicate balancing act: strengthening traditional schools while also supporting the expansion of more charter schools. King’s replacement will be at the center of both priorities.
King was appointed by an earlier school board majority that at times had clashed with charter school advocates, and her longevity as superintendent after last year’s election had been an open question.
In a statement, King revealed she is undergoing treatment for undisclosed form of cancer.
“With the progression of my illness, I have made the incredibly difficult decision to retire by June 30,” King said. “Until then, I will remain on medical leave.
“I am very thankful for the outpouring of support I have received from the entire L.A. Unified family, our community partners and my colleagues across the nation,” King added. “As I aggressively fight this illness, I ask that you continue to keep me in your thoughts and prayers.”
In a joint statement, the Board of Education praised King as “an exemplary educator, inspirational role model and steadfast leader.”
“Having dedicated her career to the district, it is now time for Dr. King to focus her incredible strength and energy on her health,” the statement said. “We wholeheartedly support her decision to retire, and will continue to keep her in our thoughts and prayers as she faces the challenges ahead.”
King’s decision to step down came amid growing questions about when she would be returning and a growing clamor for the school district to be more forthcoming about her condition. Some, both inside and outside the district, expressed concern about the district’s direction in her absence.
In the short term, the new leader will be the same person who has been in charge since mid-October, Acting Supt. Vivian Ekchian. Like King, Ekchian is a career insider who rose through the ranks.
Because senior officials have praised her performance, Ekchian is likely to be a candidate for the permanent job. Another name that has come up in discussions within and outside of the district is Chief Academic Officer Frances Gipson. She has attracted support among some outside civic leaders. But the school board is almost certain to look extensively outside the system as well.
The Board of Education selected King in January 2016. A career L.A. Unified employee, she rose with consistently good reviews to the No. 2 leadership position but had never led a school district. She brought to the job strong internal support but a certain discomfort in the spotlight and a degree of inaccessibility, even before her ailment, that contrasted with her predecessors.
King’s major accomplishment was pushing the graduation rate to record levels by allowing students to quickly make up credits for failed classes. Her major initiative going forward has been to expand the number of schools with special programs to offset declining enrollment caused by the growth of independently operated charter schools.
King didn't have any "home-run accomplishments," but she didn't have any disasters, either, said Tyrone Howard, a UCLA education professor and director of the school's Black Male Institute. "There aren’t major controversies or disasters that fell in her lap or that she created," he said. "She kept the ship steady.”
Howard also praised King's diplomacy regarding charter schools: "She showed support for both sides in ways that I don't think was easy."
Last June, the school board voted 6 to 1 to extend King’s contract through June 2020. Board members cited her performance and a need for stability going forward. The action also limited the immediate effect of a new majority that was set to take control in July. It became more politically difficult for the new majority to oust King and to select their own choice.
“She brought some stability back and it was important," said Pedro Noguera, a professor at UCLA's education school. "Her leadership style is very comforting to people of all kinds. Even when they disagree, no one ever felt she was a mean or vindictive person."
The announcement by King, 56, ended much of the mystery that had shrouded her absence. King had difficulty moving about during her last board meeting Sept. 12. She was using a cane to move around and was in obvious discomfort. It’s still not clear — based on the limited information provided — if her cancer was the underlying issue or if she had other health problems as well. Early on, there was an unofficial account that she had been injured in a zip-lining accident while on vacation with her family.
King has been on medical leave for an undisclosed condition since September. In her most recent public communication, in October, King had said she would return “after the first of the year.” She was more specific in a confidential December communication to the Board of Education, saying she’d be back Jan. 22.
Earlier this week, the district was vague about when King would return. On Thursday, however, a spokeswoman said the superintendent was scheduled to return Jan. 22, based on the paperwork of her medical leave. It also was clear that district officials had doubts about whether King could keep to this schedule or even whether she would return at all.
It will fall to the district's next superintendent, Noguera said, both to improve local schools and build the public’s confidence in them.
King “wasn’t there long enough to bring about the improvements that would lead to that strength," he said. "That’s the work that the next person is going to have to take on."
Times staff writer Sonali Kohli contributed to this report.
4:20 p.m.: This post was updated with more details throughout.
Originally posted at 2:50 p.m.