Once more, L.A. school board decision on new leader seems to stall

After meeting for more than five hours in secret, L.A. school board members failed to announce a new superintendent Friday and left Jefferson Crain, the board's senior staff member, to close the meeting by himself "for lack of a quorum."
(GIna Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

After more than five hours in closed session, the Los Angeles Board of Education recessed its meeting Friday without announcing a new superintendent for the nation’s second-largest school system.

The board is scheduled to resume deliberations May 1.

Most of the speculation has centered on former investment banker and philanthropist Austin Beutner. He appeared to have a solid four-vote majority going into Friday, with a good chance at winning votes from five of seven board members.

But two other finalists also were in play: interim Supt. Vivian Ekchian and former Baltimore Supt. Andrés Alonso.


The selection process is being conducted in secret, but sources unauthorized to speak about it indicated that the board wanted to hear briefly from each finalist one more time — either in person or by video conference. After opening the meeting at district headquarters, board members listened to public comments for about 25 minutes and then departed to deliberate in private at an undisclosed office suite in a downtown skyscraper.

Most district insiders appear to be rooting for Ekchian, who turns 58 Saturday and has spent her entire education career within the school system. After her 10 years as a teacher, her roles have included head of human resources, chief labor negotiator and regional administrator for campuses in the west San Fernando Valley. She’s managed the district since September, when Supt. Michelle King went on medical leave and chose Ekchian to fill in for her. King, who is battling cancer, was not able to return and announced her retirement in January.

Some of the support for Ekchian surfaced late in the week. Two parent advisory committees endorsed Ekchian in letters to the school board. During the open portion of Friday’s meeting, several parents extolled the interim superintendent. They also called for more openness in the process, including a chance for parents and students to meet and assess the finalists.

Kathy Kantner, a parent who serves on a district advisory committee concerning services for disabled students, said Ekchian “has devoted her career to the district” and “has established deep collaborative relationships. ... We know she has the best interests of our children at heart and she doesn’t have any other agenda.”

An Ekchian-friendly delegation of parents, representing several groups, visited every board office on Thursday but did not score a meeting with a board member, said parent Evelyn Aleman Macias, who was part of the group.

Numerous influential civic leaders have urged — and pressured — the board, mostly behind the scenes, to select Beutner.


Beutner, 58, has two ongoing connections with the L.A. Unified School District. The first is his leadership of an outside task force that is making recommendations on how to improve the school system. The second is his charity, Vision to Learn, which supplies glasses to low-income students. The charity and the school system are in a dispute at the moment over who is responsible for delays in providing services to students as part of a $6-million contract, half of which is paid for by L.A. Unified.

“Austin would be a strong and thoughtful leader for LAUSD,” said George Kieffer, who chairs the University of California Board of Regents and the Los Angeles Civic Alliance. “He sees the big picture, he knows L.A., he listens and he’s fair. He will develop a great team. He will be a partner as well as an executive.”

Also quietly lending their weight have been advocates for charter schools, which are independently operated, growing in number and competing for students with district-operated campuses. Four of the seven board members — enough to control the outcome — were elected with major financial support from charter supporters.

A couple of sources, however, report that one of these board members, Kelly Gonez, has expressed a preference to have an educator in charge — and might be leaning toward Alonso.

Unlike Ekchian and Buetner, Alonso, who is 60 and teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has no deep-seated local constituency, but the prospect of his selection has generated some excitement. While in Baltimore, Alonso was recognized for pushing for progress at low-performing schools, and for being willing to take strong action. While in Baltimore, he also weathered a test-score cheating scandal and occasionally rocky relations with the teachers union. But by the time he resigned, after six years, he and union leaders seemed to be working together without rancor.

Leaders of some community groups have split from the pro-Beutner camp. They worry that Beutner’s approach to confronting the district’s financial problems could shut out their voices or involve severe economic cutbacks that would undermine programs that are helping students. Some prefer Ekchian; some Alonso. They’ve been reluctant to speak publicly because they’ll have to work with whoever is selected, but they have tried to get the ear of board members.


On Friday morning, one leader of a community group decided to come out in favor of Alonso.

“L.A. Unified has the opportunity to bring in an instructional leader of color with a history of success,” said Alberto Retana, president and chief executive of Community Coalition, which works on behalf of low-income students and families in South Los Angeles. “If we have a shot at that, we should go for it — because it’s in the best interests of our kids and of our community.”

Retana, like Gonez, worked for a time in the Obama administration for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Duncan at least twice singled out Alonso for praise — for his ability to collaborate with teachers on reforms to their union contract and for altering student discipline practices by focusing more on mental health services.

Retana said his statement about Alonso was not meant to criticize Beutner or Ekchian but to alert board members that another candidate also has community support.