As the Los Angeles Board of Education closes in on choosing a new leader, attention appears to be focused on two candidates: Deputy Supt. Michelle King, an L.A. Unified School District insider, and Kelvin Adams, a superintendent from St. Louis.
School board President Steve Zimmer said he expects a decision before the end of the month on a replacement for Ramon C. Cortines, whose retirement took effect Jan. 2. But many observers say action could come as soon as the board's Monday afternoon meeting.
The next superintendent will have to manage a political struggle over the future course of the nation's second-largest school system, along with ongoing budget pressures and declining enrollment. There's the added challenge of an outside plan to greatly expand the number of independently operated charter schools, whose growth, according to a recent analysis by an expert panel, could make it difficult for the district to sustain academic programs and services.
"It's a complex system," said Pedro Noguera, director of the Center for the Study of School Transformation at UCLA. "And a big part of the job of superintendent is political. Knowing how to navigate those waters is important."
King, 54, has been the L.A. school district's No. 2 administrator under the last two superintendents. She's also served as acting superintendent since Cortines retired from day-to-day management of L.A. Unified in mid-December. Throughout her career, King has been regarded as loyal, capable and low key, avoiding debates over policy and able to steer clear of political divisions inside and outside the school system.
Her history of staying in the background, however, has left her views and leadership skills something of a mystery even within the district, although she is respected and well liked.
In St. Louis, Adams, 59, took over a school system that had lost state accreditation. Through his efforts over seven years, it is on the verge of winning back Missouri's seal of approval. During his tenure, he's also had to deal with a high-poverty student population and declining enrollment, which has shown signs of a small reversal. Adams' contract is set to expire in June, along with the authority of the state-appointed governing body that hired him.
Although St. Louis is one of Missouri's largest school systems, its total kindergarten through high school enrollment is 24,000 students — less than 5% of L.A. Unified's 543,000. The L.A. district also oversees an additional 101,000 students in charter schools.
If chosen, King would be Los Angeles' first female superintendent since the 1920s and the first black woman to hold the job. Adams also is African American. Black students are a key constituency in Los Angeles because they are among those with the highest dropout rates and faring the worst in academics. But nearly 3 in 4 L.A. students are Latino, and some officials have leaned toward hiring a Latino. A top Latino contender, San Francisco Supt. Richard Carranza, withdrew from consideration last week.
Besides King and Adams, a third person, whose name has not emerged publicly, also is under consideration, according to sources close to the process who were not authorized to speak. King and Adams are considered favorites, but the third candidate could prevail as a compromise choice, especially if that pick would enable the board to make a unanimous selection.
L.A. Unified has conducted a confidential search, although the names of most under serious consideration have emerged over time.
Observers have disagreed over whether an inside or outside candidate would be more effective in pushing the district forward.
Some have argued for an insider who is familiar with L.A.'s geography and people, especially if such a person could bring stability to a district that has had eight superintendents over the last 20 years.
Others favor an outsider to begin repairing frayed relationships among warring interest groups. These factions include employee unions on one side and, on the other, a group of philanthropists and civic leaders who have funded the growth of mostly nonunion charter schools.
King was an obvious choice as acting superintendent and has experience that would assist her if chosen for the top job, said David Rattray, vice president for education and workforce development with the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
"She understands the institution," Rattray said. "She is a good people person. She knows and understands the leadership team that's been built over the years. And she's been promoted by almost every superintendent over the last decade, which tells me that she is a very stabilizing force."
Adams, in turn, was praised by Michael W. Jones, a member of the Missouri Board of Education, in comments published last week by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"L.A. could take the Rams and we keep Kelvin Adams, and we'd get a better end of the deal," said Jones, referring to discussion about the city's NFL team relocating to L.A. "It goes without saying that Kelvin Adams has been special in that job."
The L.A. school board began its search in August. Board members have cited Cortines, 83, as a model for the next leader, but it would be virtually impossible to replicate his experience: He has deep knowledge of L.A. Unified and experience heading other large districts, including the public schools in New York City.
Cortines took over in October 2014 from John Deasy, who resigned under pressure. Cortines had headed the L.A. school system twice before.
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