Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has chosen a former Santa Ana schools superintendent and Obama administration education official as his top education advisor, a key appointment in his evolving relationship with the Los Angeles Unified School District.
But in an unusual arrangement, Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, 55, will be hired through L.A. Unified, so she can continue to accrue benefits in the state teachers retirement system. The cost of her employment will be covered by the city.
Melendez headed the Orange County district, among the state’s largest school systems, for two years until her recent surprise retirement. Melendez was unavailable Monday, but has said the commute was difficult with the rest of her family located in Los Angeles.
When she announced her departure, the school board praised her performance. She developed a broad strategic plan, including a rapid transition to new learning standards adopted by the state.
From 2009 to 2011, she served as assistant secretary for elementary and secondary schooling in the U.S. Department of Education. Before that, she headed Pomona Unified for about three years.
She also trained at the “superintendents academy” funded by local philanthropist Eli Broad, which has brought nontraditional administrators into the field. That association — and her service under U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — has led critics to accuse her of favoring what they call corporate-inspired reform. This includes a heavy reliance on test scores, including using them for teacher evaluation.
Such policies have provoked the ire of teachers unions, notable because the Los Angeles teachers union endorsed Garcetti for mayor. They saw him as a departure from predecessor Antonio Villaraigosa, an ally of Broad and Duncan.
L.A. teachers union President Warren Fletcher had no immediate reaction, saying that he wanted to contact the union leader in Santa Ana.
The issue in Santa Ana was follow through, said Susan Mercer, president of the Santa Ana Educators’ Assn.
“When you listen to her, it’s wonderful, but when you start expecting action, she can’t do it,” Mercer said.
Among other things, Melendez installed a new discipline policy that led initially to classroom disruption, the union said.
Garcetti’s spokesman suggested that any concern was misplaced.
“The mayor has an agenda of finding the best tools ... to help promote the wider sharing of best practices whether they come from a traditional school, a charter school or what have you,” spokesman Yusef Robb said. “Mayor Garcetti wants to steal and spread every good idea, regardless of where it comes from.”
The pending pension arrangement was made at the request of Melendez, and she accepted a lower salary, $139,000 a year, in exchange, Robb said.
Her title will be director of education and workforce development. Besides providing guidance on matters affecting L.A. Unified, she will also be a liaison with local colleges and businesses to improve the connections between education and job training.
The structure of her contract requires the approval of the Los Angeles Board of Education, which is scheduled to take up the matter Tuesday.
Others who work for outside groups also have a similar arrangement with the district. They include leaders of the teachers union, who are considered to be on loan until their union term ends, when they return to district jobs. Unlike union officers, however, Melendez did not have a prior working relationship with L.A. Unified.