Public Exams End for Superintendent Hopefuls

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By the time their third and final appearance before parents, teachers and city officials rolled around Sunday, the three candidates for superintendent of Los Angeles' sprawling public school system sounded well-practiced at the rhetoric of the campaign stump.

After a week of private interviews with the school board, eight sessions with teacher organizations and other district constituencies, and two earlier public forums, the presentations made by each candidate at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights largely came down to sound bites.

Students in the Los Angeles Unified School District "need something different," said banker William E. B. Siart. "What we're doing is not working."

"The only salvation for the children of our school district is to go about some very aggressive changes," said Daniel Domenech, a New York state regional school superintendent.

"I do not want to be seen as the Latino superintendent--I represent every child," said Los Angeles Unified Deputy Supt. Ruben Zacarias.

The candidates, one of whom is to be named chief of the nation's second-largest school system by June 30, did little to flesh out the basic plans they presented to the public last week.

And while the three forums provided an unprecedented chance for parents to question the candidates publicly, only the district's seven-member school board will vote to choose a winner. Board President Jeff Horton said the candidates might have to face another round of interviews with board members.

The event, which like the two forums held a day earlier was scheduled under pressure from school reform advocates, drew about 400 people. By far the most vocal and visible among them were the supporters of Zacarias, a 31-year employee of the school district.

Zacarias, 68, reiterated plans he has outlined in previous meetings, such as appointing a business czar who would oversee district finances and allow the superintendent to concentrate on raising test scores. He also promised a review of the district's lowest-performing schools that would require principals to explain why their campuses are failing.

If there was an awkward moment for Zacarias, it came when he was asked a question selected from an audience member: How would he deal with a repeat of the hepatitis A scare that spread through the district recently, after contaminated fruit desserts were distributed in school lunches? Would he handle the problem himself or delegate it to a deputy?

Zacarias, who was acting superintendent that week while retiring Supt. Sid Thompson was on vacation, said he would take charge in the event of a similar crisis. He defended Thompson, saying, "I promise you, had the superintendent been here he would have been at my side."

Domenech, 51, faced a tense moment when one of the forum moderators asked him if it was fair to seek the post as an outsider. He said he would accept an arrangement that would make him superintendent, Zacarias his deputy, and Siart the district's business advisor.

"What a good team we would make," he said.

Domenech also told parents he would push for more district experimentation with "block classes," in which a team of teachers would provide instruction on multiple subjects to large groups of students.

Siart, 50, the former chief executive of First Interstate Bancorp, told parents he would seek more corporate support for the school system, particularly in finding jobs for graduates and in bringing computers and other technology to classrooms.

"To me, education is basically the ticket to a great life," he said.

Siart said he would consult with real estate development experts to find cost-efficient ways to create more classroom space and would be willing to go to each school and "give a talk" to discourage students from joining gangs.

All three candidates said they were likely to oppose the breakup of the school district, and, in interviews after the forum, all signaled support of the district's plan to apply $40 million from Proposition BB, the recently approved $2.4-billion bond measure, to build a new downtown high school.

Zacarias' backers said after the event that their candidate's performance only affirmed their support for him.

"I know he's the one," said Rosalie Fernandez, 21, who has four children in district elementary schools. Domenech and Siart "don't know the people very well. Dr. Zacarias knows."

Others argued that he is better equipped to handle the district's diverse student population.

"You've got to know L.A.," said another Zacarias backer, a 27-year-old substitute teacher who asked not to be identified. "You can say Long Island is diverse," he said, referring to Domenech's post in New York, "but L.A.'s a whole different story. I ain't heard about riots on Long Island."

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