Succumbing to opposition from principals and other administrators, the Los Angeles Board of Education postponed a decision Monday evening on whether to allow parents and faculty at some schools to select their own principals without following district guidelines.
The policy, developed by Supt. Sid Thompson at the request of the school board, would have allowed Sun Valley Middle School and other campuses to select a principal who had not passed a district administrative exam. Sun Valley and more than 100 other schools operate under the district's LEARN reform program, which is intended to give parents and local faculty members more decision-making authority.
But when the moment came for the board to act on the policy, a majority of the seven members blinked.
Eli Brent, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, which represents most elementary, middle and high school principals and school system middle management, told the board the policy would destroy the district's merit system for hiring principals. Most of the district's administrators' organizations also opposed the policy and appealed to the board members before the scheduled vote to oppose the proposed policy.
"In its present form, this is a no-win proposition," Brent said. "The merit system will be damaged beyond repair."
Under the proposal, parents, teachers and administrators at LEARN schools and others operating under the district's school-based management reform program would be allowed to select principals even if they had not taken or passed the exam. They would be required to submit to the superintendent a statement explaining why that administrator would benefit the school and how that selection would improve student achievement, among other questions.
Current district policy requires principals to have passed the exam. But it also allows the superintendent to make exceptions to appoint principals who are believed to be well-suited to a campus even without passing the exam.
Problems with the district's hiring procedures first arose at Sun Valley (similar problems are brewing at Wilson High School) when a committee of parents and teachers selected Manny Rangell, the school's assistant principal, for the top job. But Thompson refused to allow Rangell to take the helm because he has not taken the written exam.
The parents and teachers at the school, which has been without a principal since July 1, were outraged by the superintendent's restriction and held protest meetings and picketed. As a result, the board asked Thompson to examine the policy and the district assigned an administrator to run the school until the issue could be resolved.
But at Monday's meeting, the problem showed little sign of being resolved. A last-minute attempt by board member Julie Korenstein to get the board to approve Rangell's hiring was defeated, so the board is expected to continue the debate Nov. 6.
The postponement outraged teachers and parents from Sun Valley, who attended the lengthy board meeting, and for whom the issue has become a test of the district's commitment to the LEARN program. They complained that they finally were supposed to have acquired some power but that it appeared the school district would not relinquish control.
"It's gone on too long," said a visibly angry Sherry Noland, the teachers' union representative at Sun Valley. "They [board members] keep espousing that the children can no longer wait. Well, the children at Sun Valley can no longer wait."
Mike Roos, head of the LEARN program, also appealed to the board, saying the school board needed to step back and allow the reform efforts to succeed.
"I don't envy the decision that you have before you, but on the other hand, all of us knew that change would be exceedingly difficult," Roos said. "If in fact you do believe in these school communities, then go all the way."
United Teachers-Los Angeles President Helen Bernstein lashed out at the board members for agreeing to a delay, saying they should resign. She said she would coordinate efforts to help the LEARN schools become charter campuses, which would free them of most district regulations.
"If schools are willing, I'd like to help them remove themselves from decisions of the Board of Education," Bernstein said. "This makes no sense to me."
The question before the board Monday "was a no-brainer--this was an easy decision to make," she said.
But Thompson said he will meet with the administrators' groups and that the policy will be fine-tuned. He did not say how significantly the policy would be changed.
"This isn't a time for getting into throwing rocks and bricks," Thompson said. "I think it will be worth it. I think we can come to an understanding."
But Thompson will also have to deal with board members who are split on the issue. Three members--Barbara Boudreaux, Vickie Castro and George Kiriyama--are former principals who oppose the change.
Said Boudreaux: "I think it's a vicious undermining attack on the merit system."
And Castro, who served as a principal under the special board rule without having taken the exam, said she firmly believed the existing policy did not need to be changed.
On the other side, however, board member David Tokofsky, who represents the Sun Valley area, said the school board needs to consider "the big picture" and allow schools to select the administrator that parents and teachers believe will be the best for their campus.
"As it stands now, a local community . . . could not hire Colin Powell to be the school principal . . . or Lee Iacocca," he said.
Times staff writer Amy Pyle contributed to this story.