The search for the next superintendent to lead Los Angeles’ public schools moves into high gear this week as the school board starts to interview and discuss candidates Monday and Tuesday.
The process is confidential, and it’s not clear that anyone has the inside track. Still, advocates who have influence with L.A. Unified’s elected Board of Education are pushing certain names.
The decision will hinge in large measure on what the board views as the most pressing challenge for the nation’s second-largest school system: lagging student achievement or looming financial pressures.
“When I think about the superintendent search, I find myself wondering what the job really is,” said Fred Ali, chief executive of the L.A.-based Weingart Foundation, whose education grants include support for after-school programs and charter schools. “If the school district is truly near or inevitably headed toward financial insolvency, then that certainly begins to define the kind of job this becomes. If it’s not, the search takes you in a different direction.”
Of course, the person who gets the job must handle both immense challenges — and much more.
Inside the district:
The leading insider is Interim Supt. Vivian Ekchian, who has filled in since Supt. Michelle King went on medical leave in September. King, who is battling cancer, never returned. Ekchian has confirmed her interest in the job.
Another insider whose name has come up is Frances Gipson, the district’s chief academic officer. She declined to say on Friday whether she was interested in the job.
At the moment, an insider seems a less likely choice for a new board majority that wants to leave a bold stamp on the nation’s second-largest school system. But searches can take unexpected turns. King, a career insider who was deputy superintendent at the time of the last search, was not on everyone’s short lists before she was named in January 2016.
Outside the district:
An educator bidding for the job would have to demonstrate comfort in handling financial strains as well as present a record of achieving academic gains.
Much also depends on how the board defines the job. A top priority of the previous majority was to reverse declining enrollment. That may matter less for the new majority, elected with major backing from supporters of charter schools. Its four board members definitely will seek a leader to navigate the divide between traditional campuses, run by the district, and charters, which are independently operated.
This division is fraught because the growth of charters comes at the expense of district schools, costing L.A. Unified students and the funding that comes with them. As enrollment has declined, the district has had difficulty cutting its overhead while also maintaining campuses, funding pensions and paying for retiree health benefits. Such outlays leave less money for programs benefiting students.
A key challenge for charter school leaders is finding space. They want easier and fuller access to district properties and classrooms, especially as charters grow and the school system shrinks.
Tom Boasberg in Denver is a superintendent known for supporting charters as part of an overall program. His top deputy, Susana Cordova, who rose from teacher to senior leadership, also could attract interest.
Others who fall into this category, if they were interested, would include Meria Carstarphen in Atlanta; Pedro Martinez in San Antonio; Barbara Jenkins in Orange County, Fla.; and Louisiana state Supt. John C. White.
But availability and willingness could be issues. Some leaders of other school districts have said they would not come to L.A. They have expressed concern about the volatility of the L.A. school board — and the way in which successive elections can cause power shifts that threaten a superintendent’s tenure. Those who might be persuaded typically stay mum during the search process. They don’t want to offend their current employers by openly applying elsewhere.
One potential candidate is former Supt. Andres Alonso, who served six years in Baltimore but left in 2013 to teach at Harvard and help care for his aging parents.
Less traditional choices:
During the previous search, those who were not leaders in education were unlikely to go far. That may not be the case this time.
If L.A. Unified goes with someone without an education background, the school board will be making a statement about putting financial priorities front and center. Such a candidate would have to persuade the board that he or she has management skills that transcend education expertise.
One person attracting attention is former investment banker Austin Beutner, who also served as an L.A. deputy mayor and later as publisher of The Times. He currently co-chairs an outside task force assessing how the school system functions. He declined to say whether he would be interested.
Two other members of that task force have been mentioned as well. Former L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel brings financial management experience and political savvy from winning campaigns for the L.A. City Council. Task force co-chair Laphonza Butler is president of the union that represents the state’s in-home caregivers and nursing home workers. That could give her some credibility with the district’s restive unions, which are involved in tense contract negotiations.
Another person drawing interest is Miguel Santana, president of the nonprofit that manages the 500-acre county fair complex. He formerly served as L.A.’s administrative officer and as a member of a panel that in 2015 laid out the district’s financial problems.
Roberto J. Rodriguez is a less traditional candidate with a background in educational policy. He was the top education advisor to late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and advised President Obama on education. He now heads Teach Plus, a nonprofit with leadership programs for teachers that is sometimes allied with groups critical of teachers unions.
Butler, Greuel, Santana and Rodriguez could not be reached for comment.
A much talked-about option is Ana Ponce, head of the well-regarded Camino Nuevo charter group. Ponce has the experience of developing and running what is in essence a small school district, but the step up would be huge. Camino Nuevo has eight schools; L.A. Unified more than 1,000.
A handful of former top L.A. Unified officials who went on to work elsewhere have rare status as both insiders and outsiders. They include Boston Supt. Tommy Chang and Burbank Supt. Matt Hill, who released a statement on Friday saying that he is staying in Burbank.
Another inside-outside person who would immediately rise to the short list if she applied is Joan Sullivan, head of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. Early in her career, she started a public school in New York City. Then she served as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s education advisor. At the Partnership, she has made some progress managing 18 of L.A.’s lowest-performing public schools.
“Joan Sullivan did not apply for — and is not seeking — the role of L.A. Unified superintendent,” said Partnership spokeswoman Cathy Kralik.
The school board hopes to make a decision by the end of April.