L.A. Unified looked far and wide but found new superintendent Michelle King right at home
When the Los Angeles Board of Education began looking for an new superintendent last year, it vowed to aim high.
Officials eyed nationally known school leaders in Miami and San Francisco. They even talked about high-profile politicians like such as Obama Cabinet member Julian Castro and U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles).
Michelle King, the school district’s second-in-command, was also a candidate but initially seemed a long shot. King had worked her entire career at the district, and just 15 months earlier, had been passed over to serve as a interim superintendent. There was a sense that King had risen as high as she would go, that if she wanted to become superintendent, it would be elsewhere.
But over the next few months, the dynamics changed. Some of the big names the LAUSD wanted demurred. Others looked less promising on close review.
And in the end, King impressed. Several sources close to the search said she persuaded school board members that she was more than a cautious career bureaucrat and could lead the troubled district.
King also emerged as an unlikely consensus candidate in a district mired by divisive issues such as charter school expansion, teacher evaluations and technology investment.
The powerful teachers’ union believed it could work with her, as did charter school advocates — groups often at odds with each other.
With the school district facing so many problems, the board began the search process with a sense of urgency and history.
The last permanent superintendent, John Deasy, had resigned under pressure in October 2014 amid clashes with board members and technology debacles, including an aborted $1.3-billion effort to provide iPads to every student.
Ramon C. Cortines then returned from retirement but made it clear he was willing to serve only through December.
Board President Steve Zimmer called the job “the most important in education, maybe the most important in America.”
But it wasn’t the most coveted. Miami Supt. Alberto Carvalho turned away entreaties, as did Joshua Starr, a former superintendent in Maryland.
The board reviewed more than 100 prospects — many who applied, some who were recruited. Then came a period of interviews for six to 11 individuals, followed by second interviews. For weeks, the board could not reach a consensus.
Over the last month, four or five people could have received a four-vote majority, sources said. But officials wanted to jump-start their next leader with a 7-0 mandate of support.
By last week, three people appeared to be under consideration: King, St. Louis Supt. Kelvin Adams and a third individual whose name never became public.
And King’s loyalty and long service to the district began to look more like advantages than disadvantages. King seemed a natural follow-up to Cortines, someone who could build on the calm and stability he brought, according to those involved in the search.
Several board members also openly expressed a preference for a career educator, which eliminated some options.
Other possible candidates never got a serious review because they were too closely associated with charter schools or with locally based philanthropist Eli Broad, who has helped fund political campaigns to defeat several current board members. One educator who might have fallen into this category was St. Paul, Minn., schools Supt. Valeria S. Silva.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the district is a proposal, developed by Broad, that would greatly expand the number of independently operated charter schools. A rapid exodus of district students to charters could threaten L.A. Unified’s solvency, a panel of experts recently concluded.
The Board of Education, however, is not against all charter schools, and two members, Monica Garcia and Ref Rodriguez, are regarded as charter advocates.
They could support King without alienating this portion of their base, said attorney Virgil Roberts, a veteran of the battles over education in Los Angeles. “The feeling is that it could have been worse,” Roberts said of King. “And she is somebody that … seems to always want to put the kids and their education at the top of the list. She is somebody the reform community can work with.”
Some observers concluded that Zimmer seemed to favor San Francisco Supt. Richard Carranza, who, early on, appeared to want the job. He also is Latino, as are three-fourths of district students. But Carranza pulled out of consideration last week. At the time, he lacked seven votes, and he ran the risk of alienating his current employers.
Board member Scott Schmerelson, a retired principal, said he found himself comparing everyone else with King.
“I’ve known her for so long and I see a continuous behavior of excellence,” Schmerelson said. “No deviations. No matter what the situation was.”
Board member Richard Vladovic had repeatedly said that it could be wise to choose an insider, someone with knowledge of the system. Besides King, he also admired Fremont Unified Supt. Jim Morris, who had worked in L.A. Unified for decades. Two factors that may have hindered Morris are his ethnicity — white — and the fact that Fremont serves a student population that is more prosperous overall than in L.A. Unified.
By this point, Zimmer and Monica Ratliff were willing to support King.
According to several sources, George McKenna, harbored some reservations. But, ultimately, he overcame them or was unwilling to be the lone vote against her. (McKenna could not be reached for comment.)
That made seven votes — a unanimous choice at last.
On Saturday, King called Cortines, inviting him to return briefly to the district Monday.
Cortines didn’t ask why, but he was on hand to stand behind King — along with her three grown daughters and parents — when board members made the announcement.
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.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.