The Los Angeles Board of Education remained stuck in neutral Tuesday, unable to pick a new leader for the nation's second-largest school system after a five-hour meeting and a hunt that has lasted more than five months.
The board has been conducting a national search for a new leader since August to replace Ramon C. Cortines, who retired in December. Cortines, 83, agreed to serve as superintendent 14 months ago after John Deasy resigned under pressure in October 2014. Cortines had run the district twice before and was seen as a stabilizing force in the L.A. Unified School District but not as a permanent replacement.
Several board members have said that finding a calm, collaborative and productive leader like Cortines was a top priority.
"This is very, very hard work, as it should be," school board President Steve Zimmer said after the meeting. "There has not been one moment in which the weight of this decision, and those who are affected by it, have not been present in the room. I'm very proud of this board."
Zimmer insisted that there are excellent administrators who are available and who want the job.
"We have very, very strong candidates and we have diverse candidates and we have candidates that rise to the level of skill and expertise and experience that the most important job in public education demands," Zimmer said.
He added that he still expects the seven-member board to make a choice before the end of January. The next meeting about the superintendent is scheduled for Monday.
The board's search has been confidential, with no names released, but sources have said that the shortlist has included L.A. Chief Deputy Supt. Michelle King and St. Louis Supt. Kelvin Adams.
If the board had been willing to pick a leader on a split vote, the selection process could have ended weeks ago, according to inside sources who were not authorized to comment. At least three candidates seemed certain to claim four votes or more, but not the 7-0 united front that the board wanted to present as its pick and to the community.
The candidates who might have prevailed on a split vote included King and San Francisco Supt. Richard Carranza, who withdrew from consideration this week. Fremont Unified Supt. Jim Morris also might have drawn at least four votes, even though it's not clear he was granted a second interview.
The split varied from candidate to candidate, and the issue came down to which board members were more willing to back down from their opposition to a particular person to make the vote unanimous, the sources said. At a marathon weekend meeting on Dec. 19, no side completely gave in.
In looking for its next leader, the board went straight from a list of more than 100 to a group of six or seven that it wanted to interview. A smaller group was called back. The interviews were lengthy, as long as two hours, and involved the entire board.
The board still could choose to interview additional prospects for the first time and others for the second or third time.
The new leader will step into the job at a watershed moment for the system, which enrolls 650,000 students at more than 900 schools stretching from San Pedro to Sylmar.
L.A. Unified faces a long-term financial crisis driven by declining enrollment, lagging student performance, political tumult and recent policy fiascoes, such as a $1.3-billion effort to equip all students and teachers with iPads.
An outside plan to greatly expand the number of charter schools could create further instability. A draft of that proposal, which was initially spearheaded by philanthropist Eli Broad, called for moving half of district students into charters. In the last six years, the district already has lost 100,000 students — half of them to charters, which are independently run, publicly financed and mostly nonunion.
The charter expansion effort has polarized the district, pitting the teachers union and its allies, who have criticized it, against Broad and like-minded advocates who favor aggressive action to improve student achievement — including scaling back some teacher job protections and revamping performance reviews. The two sides have repeatedly clashed, most prominently in multimillion-dollar school board races.
"The most important task of an L.A. superintendent is to work to bridge the gap on the board between the so-called reformers and the so-called allies of the teachers union," said David Plank, a Stanford University professor and executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education. "What holds L.A. back is this permanent fight — either you're with us or against us. Getting past that is necessary for anything good to happen in the district."
The Times receives funding for its Education Matters digital initiative from the California Endowment, the Wasserman Foundation and the Baxter Family Foundation. The California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles administer grants from the Broad Foundation to support this effort. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.
Times staff writer Joy Resmovits contributed to this report.
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