Top Schools Job May Be a Tough Sell

Times Staff Writers

Wanted: superintendent to take over troubled school district, second-largest in nation. Must be willing to work long hours with squabbling school board and union officials who think the superintendent works for them. But may wind up working for ambitious mayor, in which case all bets are off.

It might need a little polishing, but that is one possible version -- a jaundiced one, perhaps -- of the pitch that the Los Angeles Unified School District will make to prospective successors to departing Supt. Roy Romer, who announced last week that he does not intend to complete the 16 months remaining in his contract.

No cakewalk in ordinary times, the job of the next superintendent could have a new layer of complexity in the form of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who wants to take control of the school district and will almost certainly influence the selection process.


“The mayor doing what he’s doing right now is probably going to complicate things,” school board member Julie Korenstein said Monday. “It’s not a real positive thing for a new superintendent to come in and take over when the mayor is bad-mouthing the district.”

“On the pessimistic side,” said board member David Tokofsky, “why would anybody want this headache?”

Still, Tokofsky and others said they believed the job may be more attractive now than it was six years ago, largely because Romer has made strides toward fixing some of the district’s most nagging problems. Under Romer, the standardized test scores of elementary school students have shown substantial improvement, and the district has embarked on a massive school construction project that will eventually add 160 schools and should significantly relieve crowding.

“I have reason to believe that because of the work that Roy Romer has done here, and his national status, people have been watching this district and ... are looking to this job to be their next job,” said school board President Marlene Canter. “They want to stand on his shoulders.”

But there has been far less progress toward improving academic achievement at the middle and high school level, and Romer’s successor will be expected to change that. Also, the superintendent has clashed with some members of the board and has said he felt somewhat constricted by the teachers union.

Still, Canter said she had already received several phone calls from potential candidates. She would not name them.

Romer, the former governor of Colorado, was hired in 2000 after a six-month search in which several of the most promising candidates backed out at the last minute. Romer was hired in part because he was the only one of five favored candidates who wanted the job, which was widely viewed as Sisyphean.

He took over from an interim superintendent, Ramon Cortines, brought in after the highly politicized ouster of Supt. Ruben Zacarias. Job security was not considered one of the perks of the position -- Zacarias was the fourth superintendent of L.A. Unified in just 10 years.

And the job didn’t come with a lot of bragging rights: The district was widely perceived as Exhibit A in the case against large urban school districts.

“When Romer came, everything needed to be done,” said Ira Krinsky, director of career services at UCLA’s Educational Leadership Program and a senior consultant with the executive search firm of Korn/Ferry International. Today, he said, “I think it is a much more attractive job.”

Romer told the board recently that he wanted to leave the post by this fall, about nine months before his contract expires in June 2007. He said he intended to stay until a successor was hired.

John de Beck, a member of the San Diego Board of Education who has participated in hiring several superintendents over 16 years, said he didn’t think the specter of mayoral control would deter many candidates. The challenge of running such a large district should be a sufficient lure, he said.

“Superintendents are not easy to come by,” De Beck said. But, “when somebody says that there’s a superintendent position available in Los Angeles, I think people are going to come out of the woodwork to take it.”

Tokofsky said the board was close to hiring the executive search firm of Hamilton Rabinovitz Alschuler Inc., which conducted the recruiting campaign that led to Romer’s hiring.

Korenstein said the board hoped to have a new superintendent in place by the beginning of next school year, providing it finds enough candidates to interview this summer. However, both Canter and Tokofsky said they thought the process would take longer. Canter said she had been told to allow about nine months for the recruiting process, which she expected would begin sometime in March.

Before any candidates are interviewed, she said, there would be a period of community input to discuss the qualities that a new superintendent should possess and the priorities he or she would face. Despite the rift between Villaraigosa and the school board, Canter said the mayor could play a key role in that process, as well as other stages in the recruitment.

“I think the mayor can be incredibly helpful in all the things we’re doing,” she said. “When you have a mayor who’s interested in education, it makes it better for the city.”

In a recent interview, Villaraigosa said he hoped to play a part in the selection of a new superintendent.

A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union, said Villaraigosa should be asked to submit recommendations but have no role in the ultimate selection.

Duffy said the board alone should select the next superintendent on the basis of two principles:

“One, who’s best for the kids, and two, who can carry on the legacy that was started with Roy in terms of collaborating and working together with me as president of UTLA.... If they follow through with those two tenets, then the future bodes very well for public education in Los Angeles,” he said.

Board member Jon Lauritzen said it may be easier for the district to look internally for its next leader, because those within the district would be well-versed in the politics surrounding the selection process.

In a nod to the racial and ethnic rivalries that dominated the selection process in previous years, Lauritzen said the biggest challenge for school board members may be to find the person who best reflects the city’s various constituencies.

So far, no names have emerged publicly of potential candidates for superintendent, but Tokofsky said he had an idea.

“Maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger will be available in November,” he said. “He doesn’t have to live in a hotel in Sacramento for that job.”