Leonard Britton, 78; superintendent led L.A. Unified for three years

Leonard Britton, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District for three stormy years, has died at 78.

Britton led two of the nation's largest school systems, leaving behind a successful legacy in Miami that he was unable to translate to Los Angeles before he resigned in 1990. In declining health in recent years, Britton died Sunday morning at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, said his wife, Sherrill.

During seven years in charge of the Miami-Dade County public schools, Britton developed well-regarded specialty schools, including one for pregnant teens, forged strong relations with the teachers union, developed a cadre of effective administrators and experimented early on with a school-based management concept that achieved widespread acceptance.

That record prompted his hiring in Los Angeles, where he ran aground against a teachers strike, disgruntled subordinates, a hyperactive school board and an economic downturn.

"We never found out what Leonard Britton could do for L.A. Unified because he never got a chance," former school board member Jackie Goldberg said. "He had a lot to offer."

Britton was born on Nov. 16, 1930, in Tarentum, Pa., and grew up as Leonard Moscato, the son of a shoemaker of the same name and his wife Christine, a restaurant worker, in Kittanning, a hamlet outside Pittsburgh.

He excelled academically, graduating from high school at 16, but never felt at home within his household, where he also suffered physical abuse, Sherrill Britton said. When Britton was a teenager, the Moscatos revealed that he had been adopted.

Years later, he found his birth parents, Margaret McFall and Charles Mellon Britton. Britton reconnected with both shortly before their deaths, and he changed his name to Leonard Moscato Britton at age 32.

Britton taught science classes and earned degrees from the University of Pittsburgh during the 1950s, culminating with an education doctorate in 1962. He also served as a research biologist for the Army.

Britton began his rapid rise as an administrator in Cleveland's schools, then moved to Miami in 1965. His solid reputation in various roles led to his appointment as interim schools chief in 1976. When a scandal felled the next superintendent, Britton became the consensus antidote in 1980.

Hardworking, low-key, thoughtful and deliberative, he dealt with emergencies -- running double sessions at schools after the Cuban influx from the Mariel boatlift -- and controversies, such as navigating strategies to teach students who spoke limited English. But nothing prepared him for the move from the nation's fourth largest school system to the second largest in July 1987.

"It was a heavily politically involved job," Britton said later.

The administrative bureaucracy never embraced Britton. Teachers went on strike for nine days in 1989. And by 1990, the school board majority that had hired Britton had departed, and some members vied for a direct say over district management.

Britton resigned that July.

"Of course he was disappointed," Sherrill Britton said. "He'd never before failed at anything he'd attempted."

Britton remained in Los Angeles, working as a consultant until medical problems prompted his retirement.

A first marriage to June Kness ended in divorce. In 1985, he married Sherrill Wood, a PTA leader who worked for a local museum.

Britton is also survived by children from his first marriage, Jane Esther Adair of Miami and Laura Ruth Britton of San Antonio. His stepchildren are Douglas Carlisle Kellner of Coral Gables Florida and Adam Christopher Kellner of Los Angeles.

A memorial is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at Sacred Heart Chapel on the Loyola Marymount campus. A reception will follow. Instead of flowers, the family has requested donations in Britton's memory to Good Samaritan Hospital.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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