'A lot of instability right now': Supt. King's long medical leave raises questions for L.A. Unified

The first response to the rumors about Michelle King was: Everything is fine. Then word came that the Los Angeles school superintendent would be back at her desk within days. Then that estimate was extended by a month.

Now the leader of the nation’s second-largest school system, already out for six weeks, has told staff that she will not return to her post before January as she recovers from an unspecified medical procedure.

Business at L.A. Unified is moving ahead under acting Supt. Vivian Ekchian, but King’s prolonged, mysterious absence has added one more element of uncertainty and instability to a turbulent year.

For those keeping score, in July, the school board got a new majority — the first elected with instrumental financial support from charter-school advocates — and named Ref Rodriguez its president.

In September, prosecutors charged Rodriguez with campaign money laundering, and he stepped down from the board’s top post but remained on the board. This week, he pleaded not guilty to the charges. But his allies in the majority urged him to take a leave until his legal problems are resolved. He said he planned to stay put, which leaves that voting bloc intact.

“There is a lot of instability right now,” said David Holmquist, general counsel for L.A. Unified. “People would like clarity, but we don’t have it. I have respected the rights of Supt. King under the law. She is covered by all laws that protect employees.”

“Having said that,” he added, “Vivian Ekchian is here and she’s doing a great job. The business of the district is being done.”

Ekchian has full authority to act as superintendent, with or without consulting King. Through a spokeswoman, Ekchian said that although she hasn’t spoken to King on a day-to-day basis, she can and would contact her in an emergency.

King, 56, had difficulty moving about during her last board meeting on Sept. 12. Her medical leave began Sept. 15, though no announcement was made. On Oct. 7, she emailed senior staff that Ekchian temporarily would take over and that her doctor would reevaluate her condition at the end of the month.

On Tuesday — the day Rodriguez pleaded not guilty and his allies asked him to take a leave — King announced the extension of her absence until January.

“As I continue to recover from my medical procedure, I would like to express my sincerest gratitude for your countless well wishes and unwavering support,” King wrote in an email to all district staff. “To keep you updated, I anticipate returning to the office after the first of the year.”

The mystery surrounding King’s absence poses a crucial dilemma, said King’s predecessor, Ramon C. Cortines, who retired at the end of 2015, a few weeks before she took over.

“Nobody knows what’s wrong with her,” Cortines said. “Why isn’t the district finding out? This is serious, especially at this time in the district. There are some rights to privacy, but the board needs to know so they can make plans.”

The major issues facing the district include contract negotiations with employee unions, which are pushing for raises and preservation of generous benefits. Charter schools — empowered by the new board majority — are pushing to streamline how the district oversees these privately run public schools. Charter leaders assert that less bureaucracy would benefit students; critics say reduced oversight could lead to poor practices and wrongdoing.

Under a legal settlement, the superintendent also must approve plans from 50 schools to spend their shares of $151 million on students who are struggling the most.

But determining what role King can play is next to impossible, say district officials.

“There’s not much we can do other than to send her flowers and wish her the best and hope she gets well,” said school board member George McKenna. “I would hope she’d alert us if contingency plans are needed.”

It’s difficult to find precedent.

About a dozen years ago, in the middle of a battle with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa over who would control L.A. Unified, Supt. Roy Romer needed to deal with an increasingly painful congenital deterioration of his left ankle.

He scheduled the surgery — to install three 3-inch bolts — at the end of a week. He made no advance announcement but appeared at work on Monday.

“I had a lot of battles going on at the time, and you never want to show weakness,” Romer said. “I just wanted to show: This is not going to stop us from running the district the way we need to run the district.”

During his recovery, he moved into a hotel down the street from district headquarters.

“I would sit in the office and have my cast propped up, meeting after meeting. It doesn’t stop my mind from working.” He also lobbied in Sacramento: “I was in a wheelchair in the halls of the damn Capitol.”

Romer, like Cortines, thinks highly of King, who’s spent her entire career in L.A. Unified. He said he cannot judge her actions because her health challenges could be greater than his were.

School board member Richard Vladovic was superintendent at West Covina Unified in May 2006 when doctors said his blood pressure was dangerously high, possibly from a life-threatening blockage in an artery.

He said he missed only two days of work but retired at the end of the school year on the advice of doctors. An angiogram over the summer showed no blockage, and he was able to manage his condition with medication.

“I wish I could have gone back to my job,” he said.

Former L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy was healthy but traveled frequently to participate in broader school-reform efforts. His staff said he remained in charge and in touch.

A private person by nature, King has been less available to reporters than her recent predecessors and has avoided unscripted conversations and events.

The previous board majority pushed through a contract extension for her just before the power shifted. King has been away during a time when she might have been trying to build relationships with the new power bloc, which could move to install a superintendent of its choice.

Such factors have led to speculation about her medical condition and whether the current drama is the prelude to a contract buyout.

“This is the equivalent of a $7-billion corporation,” said a senior district official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the school system. “If you’re going to be out for a protracted period, you should have pulled the trigger right away or been more transparent. We don’t know what the issue is and she’s not telling us.”

King will receive her full $350,000-a-year salary while on sick leave. She had accumulated more than a year of unused sick time, but no one expects the situation to remain unresolved that long.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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