Q&A: The power game behind the search for a new L.A. schools leader

The first question in L.A. Unified School District's superintendent hunt seems to be: Austin Beutner, yes or no?
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

The search for a new Los Angeles schools superintendent is proceeding behind closed doors, but the underlying power politics extend well beyond the room where seven elected Board of Education members are at work.

There now appear to be three finalists since Indianapolis Supt. Lewis Ferebee withdrew from consideration this week. They are, in alphabetical order: former Baltimore Supt. Andres Alonso, former investment banker Austin Beutner and Vivian Ekchian, who is L.A.’s interim superintendent.

Some of the city’s power brokers seem to be invested in Beutner, 58, who is himself one of L.A.’s more influential leaders. But they are keeping a low profile, apparently working behind the scenes on his behalf.


The person who gets the job will have to confront the Los Angeles Unified School District’s rising pension costs, vastly underfunded retiree health benefits and declining student enrollment, which could push the nation’s second-largest school system toward financial crisis. Many schools also perform well below state averages academically.

What happened in closed session Tuesday, and who has the inside track?

The board met in private for about 10 hours. Much of that time was spent on second interviews with Alonso and Beutner. (Ekchian had hers last week.) Deliberation lasted until about 10 p.m. and often got heated, sources said. The meeting recessed with no announcement.

In any scenario, the majority would prefer to avoid a 4-3 vote if one of those four votes belongs to Ref Rodriguez, who faces criminal charges for alleged political money laundering. He has denied wrongdoing, but his reputation has suffered and he could be forced from office if convicted.

Informed speculation suggests that Beutner has the easiest path to a four-vote majority, and the core of that support would come from the four-member board majority elected with major financial backing from charter school advocates. Beutner has tried to avoid polarizing comments on charter-related issues, though he has served on the boards of charter school organizations and contributed to charter-backed candidates for public office.

But his lack of experience in managing schools or school districts could give some board members pause, including those in the charter-backed bloc.

If that bloc holds for Beutner, a fifth vote could come from Richard Vladovic, who has triangulated between opposing district factions without alienating them.


If Beutner cannot get past four votes, the board could turn to Alonso, especially if switching gears could bring him five or six votes.

From 2007 to 2013, Alonso, 60, managed to navigate opposing political forces in Baltimore, forging a respectful relationship with the teachers union while also winning praise from advocates, such as charter backers, who frequently do battle with unions.

In the current climate, the 57-year-old Ekchian, the insider, looks like a fallback choice. She would not be the first L.A. superintendent to ascend this way. Were she to be selected, a 7-0 vote is possible, as a gesture of goodwill.

What happens next?

The board meets Friday at noon. It’s possible that the choice is already made and that the delay until Friday is simply to prepare for the announcement or to hash out contract details. Or maybe the debate continues.

How might the new board majority affect the superintendent selection process?

Supt. Michelle King was hired in 2016 by a board that wanted her to win back students who had left the school system for charter schools. These independently operated campuses compete with traditional district-run schools for students and state funding. And they are growing in number, enrolling about 18% of district students.

The current board majority, which took control in July, is more concerned with working effectively with charters and helping them to be successful as part of a menu of educational options for families.


The more charter-friendly emphasis of today’s board has resulted in a pool of finalists who’ve worked well with charters and sometimes promoted their growth. It’s hard to imagine that Beutner could have been a finalist in the previous search. His lack of work experience in traditional public education would have made him a non-starter. For some who back him now, it may be a plus.

During the previous superintendent search, a coalition of groups wanted direct influence over the selection process. Why not this time?

In late 2015, a group of civic leaders privately urged — then later publicly called for — the school board to have an outside committee assist with or even lead the search. They said it would help produce a schools leader with broad and strong community support. In a public letter, the coalition also sought “information on the number of candidates who have applied and a brief profile on their professional backgrounds.”

They haven’t done that this time. They either trust the current board more or feel they already have influence through back channels.

The support for Beutner is not unanimous among community groups. Some worry that he would place too little stock in their input and might be too willing to adopt harsh financial fixes. But several leaders told The Times they are unwilling to criticize Beutner publicly because they will need to work with him if he is chosen.

Separately, United Teachers Los Angeles has called for a more open process with time for meaningful public input, suggesting perhaps that the union lacks significant back-channel board influence in this decision.

Union leaders say they’d like to see a superintendent with a career in education; a history of collaboration with various local groups, including employees; and a commitment to focusing on the success of traditional public schools.


Ekchian, whose whole career in education has been with the district, most closely fits this bill.

On the other hand, if the union wants to make credible strike threats to win contract concessions, it might be easier to rally against a Supt. Beutner.

Twitter: @howardblume