Will the safe choice for L.A. Unified chief turn out to be the best?

After a far-reaching search for a superintendent, L.A. Unified board members settled on someone just down the hall: Michelle King.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

No question about it. The selection of Michelle King as superintendent of Los Angeles Unified comes with what PR folks call a nice narrative.

King, 54, attended district schools as a student, got her first job as an LAUSD student aide in 1978, became a teacher and a principal, and worked her way up to second-in-command under the last two superintendents.

We all want to root for someone who came up through the ranks, right?


But does any of that make her the best choice — or even a good choice — to lead the district?

I hope so, and I wish her success, but it’s way too soon to know.

What’s clear is that LAUSD board members made the safe choice. They decided on someone who has been a good, low-profile soldier rather than a strong,independent voice, and for now at least, I find that disappointing.

The 7-0 vote by board members suggests that they’re comfortable with King. But their comfort isn’t necessarily a good thing for anyone but themselves.

LAUSD is the nation’s second-largest public school district, and it’s hard to imagine anything more important to the city’s success than the success of the district’s largely impoverished student population.

I’m sure all the candidates who looked at the job found plenty to admire. There are great teachers getting through to deserving students in thousands of LAUSD classrooms every day.


I also know there’s more than a morsel of truth in the statement by the outside candidate who declined the job, calling the district “a total mess.”

Look at the problems: Declining enrollment, a steady flight by students to charters, lagging student achievement and a massive projected budget deficit, to name just a few.

Such challenges may have justified paying the handsome sum of $250,000 in consulting fees to a search firm and giving it the task of scouring the entire country for months on a mission to land the best possible candidate.

I kind of got my hopes up for a proven leader, from a functional enterprise, who could take a fresh look at what needs to be done.

But after a far-reaching search, the board members settled on someone just down the hall. Someone they passed over not all that long ago.

King, who was making $303,505 a year in her job as chief deputy superintendent, had something of an Al Haig moment several months ago, when former Supt. John Deasy’s tumultuous reign came to a crashing end. In a confidential letter The Times got ahold of, she shot up her hand for the interim job. But the board instead went with former chief Ray Cortines as interim leader.

What’s changed since then?

And why are board members acting is if they’ve only recently gotten to know the real Michelle King, who’s been around for decades?

With so much at stake, I wouldn’t have minded a longer, deeper search.

Now I’m wondering if board members — divided among teacher union loyalists and charter school proponents — were looking for someone to lead the district or someone they could trust to stay out of their fight.

While there may indeed be an advantage to knowing the district inside out, as King certainly does, there’s a disadvantage to having been a central part of its culture and dysfunction for decades.

Let’s not forget that King was No. 2 on the flow chart during Deasy’s iPad debacle and the equally disastrous rollout of the electronic student tracking system. Deasy was ambitious and determined to have his way. What he needed most wasn’t a meek loyalist, but someone with the courage to speak up and tell him when he was wrong.

The board has now hired a superintendent whose defining characteristic has been a low profile. On what figures to be a defining battle for control of the schools — a plan by private interests to enroll as many as half the district’s students in charter schools — King had this to say after her selection was announced:

“I am not for or against the plan. I am about L.A. Unified’s plan.”

Here’s a question:

What is that plan?

And now, since she will at least in theory be in charge of defining and articulating the district’s plan, what is her plan?

We have not heard, nor have board members offered much of an explanation.

In an email to me, board President Steve Zimmer extolled King’s “experience at every level, literally every level of our district: student, teacher, principal, local district supt., etc.”

“But more important [was that] her depth of knowledge and understanding of the critical issues facing the district from budget to … transforming discipline were unmatched. Perhaps most important, the process gave us the chance to see different aspects of Ms. King’s skills, talent, vision and passion. We were moved.”

I hope, for the sake of hundreds of thousands of students, that the board’s instincts were good and that the “vision” part Zimmer referred to will soon become clear.

“The very best is what every parent wants for his child and what everyone in L.A. Unified wants for our students,” King said Monday.

Well, yeah. But let’s ditch the bromides, please.

I’d like to know how King will draw on her experience — from LAUSD kindergarten student all the way up the ladder to superintendent — to improve instruction, clone good principals, reduce class sizes, repair broken-down schools.

She was once a science teacher, so I’d like to hear how she intends to get students excited about learning, and how she intends to motivate teachers and engage parents.

Basic leadership.

I need to be won over, but I’d be thrilled if the safe choice turns out to be the best choice.

Twitter: @LATstevelopez