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Anton, a Tough Insider, Is Lauded for His Leadership

TIMES EDUCATION WRITERS

An up-by-his-bootstraps product of Los Angeles’ Eastside, new Los Angeles schools chief William R. Anton is known as a tough, street fighter with a back-to-basics approach.

He is short on innovative ideas, district observers say, but he is long on the kind of optimism and leadership needed to bring the troubled district through its myriad problems.

Anton was selected Monday after a grueling, all-day closed meeting among school board members, who decided to buy out the nearly one year remaining on the contract of Leonard Britton, who had announced last week he intended to leave when his contract was up next June.

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Although board members considered other candidates, several of them said Tuesday that Anton was the only one interviewed during their long private session. His choice, said board member Roberta Weintraub, was a “foregone conclusion.”

“The majority (of the board) came into the meeting willing to buy out Leonard’s contract and with someone (Anton) they wanted to put in his stead,” said board president Jackie Goldberg, one of two board members who voted against the buyout.

The board wanted to remove Britton immediately to avoid a year under a lame-duck leader and install Anton, avoiding a long search for a replacement.

Anton, who has spent 38 years as a teacher and administrator in the Los Angeles Unified School District, was passed over for the top job twice before, including when Britton was hired. His selection gives the district a safe insider with lots of ties to the staff and community.

“He is an LAUSD man through and through,” Goldberg said. “That might be just what the doctor ordered.”

Anton was rejected three years ago not because Britton was necessarily better, Goldberg said, but because the board wanted an outsider with a fresh perspective on the district and experience with the kind of school restructuring Los Angeles was heading for.

But Britton’s low-key style, scholarly approach and lack of familiarity with the district’s personnel and problems made it difficult for him to inspire support among teachers, administrators and board members.

Last November, Anton announced that he would retire at the end of the current school year, but less than a month later, after two board members, Britton, PTA representatives and others urged him to stay on, he changed his mind. That is turn fueled speculation he expected to be named to the top job soon, something that Anton, 65, has consistently denied.

“There was no connection between the events of last year and tonight,” he reiterated Monday.

Rita Walters, one of the few current members on the board when Britton was chosen, said the decision to hire Britton was made “within the context of the environment of three years ago. Things have changed.”

Now, board members say, the district needs a proven leader, someone who understands its problems and has the confidence to solve them.

“Bill is the consummate insider,” said board member Warren Furutani. “That’s part of his strength. He’s a tough leader, but he also commands the respect of the staff.”

Britton was known as a scholar and innovator, but “he was so indecisive . . . you never knew who was in charge,” said Helen Bernstein, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles.

By contrast, Anton has a reputation as a man who is not afraid to make a tough decision and bear the consequences.

“It’s not an idea man we need, the ideas are here,” Furutani said. “We don’t need to go out looking for another Messiah or do another study.

“We need someone who believes in getting back to the basics: hard work, accountability, set your goals to reach them and analyze whether you’ve met them and move on,” he said. “Without a doubt, he’s the best man for the job.”

During several years as the district’s second in command, Anton was charged with carrying out his boss’ most unpopular decisions, and did that without regard for whose toes he stepped on, observers said.

He became known in some circles, including among many teachers, as a kind of “hatchet man.”

“He’s the least likely choice (for superintendent) among the average teacher,” Bernstein said. “He’s got a reputation as a ‘hatchet man’ whether that’s deserved or not. I think the principals will support him, but he’s going to have to make some overtures” to the teachers.

But Bernstein said she is optimistic that Anton will be able to win teachers over. She and Anton met Tuesday afternoon, and both are committed to giving more decision-making authority to local schools. They plan to meet each week.

Bernstein and other teachers say Anton’s kind of toughness may be just what is needed to succeed in a district overseen by a divided school board and crippled by financial problems.

“Bill has a lot of personal strength,” said Mike Dreebin, a United Teachers-Los Angeles board member who has known Anton for several years. “He’s the kind of guy, if you do something well, he’ll give you a public strong pat on the back. But if you do something wrong, he’ll chop your head off. We need somebody strong like that.”

Anton, who will be 66 on Sunday, was born in El Paso, Tex., and moved to East Los Angeles with his family as a young child. He attended public schools on the city’s East Side.

He graduated from Garfield High School and studied engineering at Los Angeles City College. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education and administration at Cal State Los Angeles, and served for three years as an Army paratrooper.

He began teaching at Rowan Avenue Elementary School and started the long, steady climb through the ranks: vice principal to principal to director of the district’s Urban Teacher Corp. project with UCLA, to assistant superintendent, then area superintendent and finally to one of two deputy superintendent positions.

Along the way he got to know someone in “every nook and cranny of the district,” and met hundreds of parents, teachers and community leaders, who came to view him as the man to call when they needed something done, several officials said.

“One of Bill’s greatest strengths is his knowledge of the district,” said John Greenwood, who was a school board member when Britton was hired. “He’s got a protege in every area. He knows where all the bodies are buried.”

“If somebody calls Bill and says, ‘Hey, the school is looking kind of dirty these days, it’s not getting swept enough,’ all he has do is pick up the phone and call the custodian union and take care of the problem.”

That kind of responsiveness and accessibility has earned Anton high marks.

“He’s always been there for us whenever there’s been any kind of problem,” said Barbara Topkis, president of the 10th district PTA, which represents the southern end of Los Angeles County.

“He comes to our luncheons, he speaks to our parents . . . he shows that we mean something to the school district. He’s the kind of man you can talk to and he listens and he understands. And he’s got the best interests of the kids at heart.”

The first Latino to lead the 85% minority district, which is 62% Latino, Anton will “quickly open doors that otherwise would take much longer to open,” said Leticia Quezada, the board’s only Latina. “Bill Anton was chosen because he is the best one for the job,” Quezada added, “but you cannot underestimate the significance of having a Latino there. It’s an added plus. People can say, ‘He’s one of us; he understands.’ ”

Larry Gonzales, who preceded Quezada on the board and who helped pick Britton, said the climate for having a minority superintendent has improved since then.

But, Gonzales said: “I hope the Latino community doesn’t place overly ambitious expectations on Bill Anton, particularly over the next year, but will give him an opportunity to lead. There’s always a feeling that because there’s a minority at the top that things are going to change overnight. That’s not realistic.”

But Topkis said the appointment will undoubtedly be a “tremendous self-esteem booster” for the area’s Latino community.

“Here’s a man who made it and he’s Hispanic and he’s bilingual and now he’s going to be superintendent of the second largest district in the nation. That’s got to give the children in this district a little inspiration.”

Times staff writer Lydia Ramos contributed to this story.


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