Anton Says His Departure Offers Chance for Change : Education: Outgoing L.A. district superintendent urges a period of self-reflection that could improve the nation's second-largest school system.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Offering no apologies and expressing few regrets, Los Angeles Unified School District chief Bill Anton said he hopes his abrupt resignation will force the nation's second-largest school system to re-examine its governing structure and find ways to soothe the tensions that divide its teachers and other employees.

Anton, in an interview Friday in his district office downtown, said his greatest achievement in his 26 months as superintendent was simply that he could "hold the district together" in spite of a fiscal crisis that forced spending cuts of more than $1 billion during his tenure.

He reiterated that a variety of factors finally drove him out the door, ranging from a school board that often would not listen to him--and sometimes shut him out of matters traditionally handled by administrators--to a teachers' union that he believes has too much influence.

Anton, 68, emphasized that his sudden departure and criticisms of the system are not meant to hurt the district he has served for nearly 41 years, but to usher in a period of self-reflection that could ultimately make it better.

"My message is not one of hitting back," said Anton, whose last day is Wednesday. "It's one of trying to alert everyone, including board members, (to) look in the mirror and see what we are doing. I would hope that would help the next superintendent not to have to deal with some of these things."

Hailed as a tough but optimistic leader when appointed superintendent in 1990, Anton became the first Latino to head the mammoth school district. He pledged at the time to work with Helen Bernstein, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, and said he hoped to motivate a work force struggling to provide a quality education to more than 600,000 schoolchildren.

But during his two years as the district's top administrator, Anton watched as officials were forced to slash positions, reduce services and raise class size to balance the multibillion-dollar budget. In recent months, he saw tensions escalate among employees demoralized by the proposal of drastic pay cuts to make up a $400-million budget shortfall this year.

And increasingly, Anton said, he saw his powers undercut by school board members who yielded to the pressure of the teachers' union.

"I'm sure board members feel in their heart of hearts that they are not unduly influenced," he said. "But there's a general perception that it's true (they are influenced)."

Bernstein disagrees. "These people, including Bill Anton, give me a power and a credibility that I don't have," she said, contending that if the union was so influential, teachers would not be facing a drastic pay cut this year.

In assessing Anton's leadership, Bernstein said, "I still feel Anton started out with his heart in the right place. . . . (But) he had to make some very tough decisions and he had to do them in a way to bring about some real change. He was unable to do that. And his greatest asset--being an insider--turned into a big liability."

Anton said he began to consider resigning over the last few weeks when the specter of budget cuts triggered more than a dozen student demonstrations across the district and sparked an intensive campaign by UTLA, including a pledge that teachers would not participate in any extracurricular activities.

"That gave me a sense of 'Wow, I don't know how we can turn this whole thing around,' " Anton said. "This is not just (about) wages. Perhaps we lost that reason why many of us came into education--to make a difference in children's lives."

He added that he believes UTLA's leadership could have helped stop the student walkouts, which the union has vehemently denied encouraging.

Anton said he was also increasingly concerned that the board, in an attempt to reduce pay cuts and avert a threatened teachers strike, would back away from a pledge to avoid layoffs. The board was able to trim the pay cut last week by reducing other expenditures, but Anton says there is not much more that can be slashed without crippling the operation of the district and unfairly affecting support staff.

Because of unanticipated state revenue and the proposal of additional cuts last week, district officials have trimmed the pay reductions to a range of 4% to 13.5%--down from an earlier range of 6% to 16.5%. They are trying to reduce the cuts even more.

Anton also complained that the board often ignored the district's chain of command, taking over duties normally performed by administrators, such as handling problems at individual schools. He said board members sometimes did not bother to inform him of their actions.

Though some board members say they agree that the roles of the board and superintendent should be better defined, most deny they have been unduly influenced by the teachers' union or have overstepped their bounds and interfered with Anton's job.

"This district is very large," board President Leticia Quezada said. "People don't know who to go to, and they often do call the board member. (But) our office encourages them to go to the school first. I am not interested in stepping into the shoes of the manager of the school system."

Board member Julie Korenstein denied that the board is leaning toward massive layoffs, saying the board is committed to reducing pay cuts for all employees.

"It has nothing to do with pleasing UTLA," Korenstein said. "It has to do with responsibility to the employees and children of this district. There may be a lowering of salaries, there may be bumping down of positions, (but) the main focus of the board is not to lay people off."

Anton said he hopes that an ethnic minority from within the district is selected for the key position. Currently the top two contenders are Anton's second in command, Sid Thompson, and Deputy Supt. Ruben Zacarias.

"It's important, especially in the wake of the unrest, that we have leadership that represents the majority of our school system," Anton said. "That's not to say a (non-minority) is not capable of doing the same thing, but at this point in time, especially when I cracked the barrier, it would be best not to take a step back."

The board was expected to announce its choice for an interim superintendent Friday, but it said it will not announce a decision until next week. In the meantime, tensions have begun to escalate as Latino activists demand that Zacarias, who is Latino, replace Anton; many black educators say Thompson, who is African-American, is most qualified for the job.

At a news conference Friday, Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) joined Latino community activists in demanding that Zacarias be appointed. Father Juan Santillan of St. Lucy's Catholic Church said he would encourage Latino parents to keep their children out of school if Zacarias is not chosen.

Anton said he has not been included in the board's discussions about who should succeed him, but said he is willing to try to help ease some of the tensions.

Although Anton did not know the breadth of the budget problems he would face when appointed superintendent, he said he was well aware of the massive size of the district, which he viewed as an asset. And though some parents groups and activists have advocated breaking up the school system, Anton still feels the district should remain intact--for the sake of the children.

"This way we can hold the citizens and business community accountable," Anton said. "I don't know how accountable they would be if we created an African-American district in South Los Angeles and a Latino district in East Los Angeles. . . . Why would anybody be interested if the central city wasn't part of the school district?"

For whoever follows in his footsteps, Anton had a few words of advice: "Just because I thought I could do no more, I don't want (the new superintendent) to have that attitude," Anton said. "It's a good district. Don't give up on it. Have the courage to be optimistic."

Times education writer Jean Merl contributed to this story.

Career Highlights

Bill Anton, 68, the first Latino to head the Los Angeles Unified School District, has served the district for four decades.

BACKGROUND * Born: El Paso, July 22, 1924. Family moved to California in 1930 and settled in East Los Angeles. One of 10 children, he attended local elementary and secondary schools.

* Education: Bachelor's degree in education and master's degree in elementary administration from Cal State L.A., 1952 and 1954.

* Personal: Married to Donnalyn Jaque-Anton, director of the school district's professional development branch. He has four children, three from a previous marriage.

CAREER * 1952-69: Los Angeles elementary school teacher, vice principal and principal. He also taught community adult school.

* 1969-70: Director of the Urban Teacher Corps Project.

* 1970-75: Assistant superintendent and director of Title I program.

* 1975-81: Area superintendent, over two areas.

* 1981-82: Associate superintendent for school operations at central administrative office.

* 1982-90: Deputy superintendent.

July, 1990: Appointed district superintendent.

* November, 1990: After teachers union threatens to file grievances, Anton delays until February his decision to remove 100 teachers from classrooms that have fewer students than expected. This surplus of teachers costs the district $4 million.

* May, 1991: Anton proposes a sweeping plan to shift much decision-making to local management teams. To "share the pain" of budget cuts, he promises to return 10% of his pay.

* August, 1991: Has not yet made good on his promise to cut his salary while asking every employee to accept a 7% pay cut, later reduced to 3%, to help balance the budget.

* January, 1992: Announces an embarrassing midyear shortfall of $150 million, prompting the board to request an outside audit.

* April, 1992: District comes under fire for spending $250,000 on an opinion poll and public relations consultants who wrote Anton's speeches and coached him before news conferences.

*May, 1992: Proposes cuts of $400 million for the next fiscal year.

*July, 1992: District administration proposes that the bulk of the $400 million in cuts be taken through employee pay cuts ranging from 6% to 16.5%, plus unpaid days off and changes in health insurance benefits.

*August, 1992: Angry over proposed double-digit pay cuts, the head of the teachers union calls for Anton's ouster.

*September, 1992: Anton submits his resignation to the board.

SOURCE: Times files

Compiled by Times researcher Tracy Thomas.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°