The private warning from Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy was clear: If Richard Vladovic became president of the Board of Education, Deasy was poised to resign and cause a maelstrom in the nation's second-largest school system.
Vladovic became board president regardless last week — elected by colleagues on the seven-member body. It was a testament to political skills honed during decades in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
And Deasy, who had made his threat known to civic leaders and district officials, backed down.
The episode affirms how Vladovic, 68, has become a central figure in a school system entering a period of risk and opportunity. The district is preparing for new state curriculum standards and planning to give iPads to all students. Teachers and principals face new, detailed job evaluations based in part on student test scores. And for the first time in several years, the district won't face substantial budget cuts. But tough decisions loom on how to spend funds that aren't sufficient to redress all the recent cuts.
A coalition of civic leaders and philanthropists consider Deasy, a national figure, crucial to rapid, continued progress in L.A. Unified.
Critics accuse him and his allies of pushing too hard too fast and of favoring an unproven brand of reform that relies too much on standardized test scores while placing too much pressure on teachers.
Deasy took the job in 2011 knowing he had the influential support of then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and an allied board majority. That backing has dissipated.
Deasy's current agenda includes pay increases, with larger bumps for teachers that are tied to measurable results or leadership roles. Vladovic, in contrast, leans toward restoring staffing levels to reduce class sizes, for example, or provide more counselors for students. That position aligns closely with the teachers union's.
The relationship between a board president — who has mostly ceremonial powers — and a superintendent matters. The president works closely with the superintendent, establishing the meeting agenda and setting a tone for the entire board, said former L.A. school board president Marlene Canter.
"You have to have a relationship to work through the problems together," she said. "It doesn't mean you have to agree on everything."
Critics assert that Vladovic's temper poses a problem. Deasy declined to discuss it, but those close to him conveyed his fears about losing senior staff such as Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino, the top official in charge of academics.
Vladovic acknowledged that he shouted at Aquino, but added that he thinks "very highly" of him. Aquino declined to comment.
That incident and others became part of an ongoing internal investigation into whether Vladovic crossed legal or ethical lines with alleged verbal abuse. To date, the district has released no findings. His critics say he can be a bully, while also noting he can display a disarming charm as well.
Vladovic's graciousness has resulted in close relationships with board members Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte and Bennett Kayser, who felt marginalized by the former board majority allied with Deasy.
Both voted for Vladovic, along with two others.
A San Pedro High graduate, Vladovic said he chose to teach in L.A. Unified, starting in 1969, turning down a more prosperous school system. "I did not think I was needed in Palos Verdes," he said.
His rise included a stint as principal at Locke High and long experience in staff relations, where he mediated conflicts and investigated and meted out employee discipline. He became a regional superintendent before accepting a job heading West Covina Unified.
He left after two and a half years to deal with heart problems that blood pressure medication eventually controlled.
Both his children work for L.A. Unified, one as a principal.
Vladovic was elected to the board in 2007 with help from Villaraigosa. But as the mayor's departure approached, Vladovic notably shifted to a posture more independent of Villaraigosa and Deasy.
Behind the scenes, Deasy recently was displeased that Vladovic — and three other board members — refused to grant multiyear contracts to key members of the superintendent's team. Past school boards have used such measures to express displeasure with superintendents. Deasy's critics see, in this scenario, the beginning of irreconcilable differences that could lead to the superintendent's departure.
Vladovic offers a less foreboding interpretation. Deasy, said Vladovic, wanted sole responsibility for evaluating senior staff. Vladovic disagreed. If he's going to vote on a contract, he said, then he wants to perform his own evaluation — with something more quantifiable than the superintendent's recommendation.
"I just want to make sure everyone is treated equally, including senior staff," he said. "Some senior staff are given one year and others two years, and I never understood the rationale for that."
Deasy won't discuss whether he threatened to resign, but Vladovic said he heard about it and invited Deasy for a chat after last week's board meeting.
"I said, 'John, I think you do a lot of good things for kids.... I'd like to give it a go, and I'm counting on you,'" Vladovic said.
Deasy seems ready — or at least resigned — to giving the new world order a try.
"I look forward to working with my entire board — the president, the vice president and all of them," Deasy said, "as we continue to serve the students."