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Ex-CEO of Bank Seeks School Post

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

With headhunters calling weekly to tantalize him with choice corporate posts, former First Interstate Bancorp chief executive William E.B. Siart decided to take a break.

Now, nearly a year after the company he headed was acquired by Wells Fargo, the 50-year-old Siart is ready to work again. And the position he has decided to pursue is about as distant from the corporate world as any job could be: superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

What can a businessman whose main education background is his own schooling bring to the high stress, $163,000-a-year position? According to Siart and some of those who have discussed the idea with him, plenty.

At First Interstate, he handled a $3-billion budget, L.A. Unified’s is nearly $5 billion; he managed 40,000 employees, L.A. Unified has 60,000; he oversaw 1,300 facilities in 13 states, the district has 899 schools and centers.

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“He knows not very much about pedagogy, and by the way neither do I,” said Mike Roos, who heads the district’s largest reform program, LEARN. “But he knows an awful lot about management and I must tell you that in six years it has come into focus for me that . . . being able to offer and achieve quality performance on behalf of every child is in a major way a management question.”

Both Roos and Siart are quick to say that LEARN will not back any candidate for the position that comes open in four months when Supt. Sid Thompson steps down. Siart said he sought advice from the corporate executives who started the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, not vice versa.

But Siart has wholly embraced the group’s reform plan, which now offers about a third of the district schools some autonomy. He compares it to a decentralization that First Interstate underwent during his tenure.

The questions he raises about the nation’s second-largest school system may be refreshingly direct: Why can’t student test scores at least reach the national average? Why shouldn’t Spanish-speaking kids move to all-English programs by third grade? Why are school buildings falling apart?

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Yet his solutions could be straight from a LEARN training manual. Siart wants to restructure district management to focus more on the schools’ needs, reallocate more resources to the schools and then hold the schools responsible for meeting certain standards.

“I would start by making a list of all the things that we’re asking the schools to do,” he said, “Then I’d sit back and say, ‘We’re here to help the schools. So are we asking them for things that are going to help them do a better job or are we asking them to do things that help us do a better job?”’

The issues raised by Siart’s entrance into the superintendent’s race, particularly if he makes it to the finalist ranks next month, are intriguing to some, perplexing to others. Namely, what counts most: the ability to be a strong manager or a strong instructional leader?

There is recent precedent for bringing professional managers into top education posts, including the appointment of retired Army generals in Seattle and in Washington, D.C. But some say why those two have had success is because the rules were changed for them.

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“It would be an interesting experiment to see whether a business type living with the same restrictions could bring about change,” said Tom Giugni, executive director of the Assn. of California School Administrators. “It’s hard to turn a big ship around.”

The major difficulty for non-educators, Giugni said, is that they have to learn the educational system in general and the local school bureaucracy simultaneously.

The search firm that handled the Seattle search, Heidrick & Struggles, also is coordinating a nationwide search for the Los Angeles Board of Education, which has appointed a committee to narrow the semifinalists to between three and five people.

Yet the balance of desired abilities is not easily tipped in favor of nontraditional candidates. A majority of the Los Angeles Board of Education, which will make the decision about who fills the superintendent’s job, have already said they prefer a career educator.

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But more than that is hard to know because Siart’s announcement of his decision to apply is among the few public moments in a very closed-mouthed search for candidates to fill the top job. The application deadline recently passed, but not even the number of applicants has been released by the district.

The only known competitors for the post are those who have released their own names: British educator Matt Dunkley, who visited Los Angeles last year to learn about reforms here, and Deputy Supt. Ruben Zacarias.

In a district that is 70% Latino, with a strong lobby behind Zacarias, Siart said a major consideration over the last few weeks was whether anyone would see him as more than a white male.

Ultimately, he decided, they might.

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But why would someone with opportunities galore want to seek such a seemingly thankless job? Siart’s answer seems to be, why not?

In a way, like Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, he has little to risk--except perhaps his reputation as a savvy manager. He received a reported $6.7 million in stock when he left First Interstate last March and would commit to holding the superintendent’s job for no more than five years.

His concern about the quality of education was first piqued at First Interstate, he said, when he discovered that a majority of applicants for clerk jobs could not pass an eighth-grade-level math test. Before beginning to research the superintendent’s job a few months ago, Siart’s deepest contact with Los Angeles Unified had been as a student at Pacoima’s Montague School. For high school, he went to parochial schools.

He has a master’s degree in business administration from UC Berkeley and is on the USC Board of Trustees.

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