L.A. school board meets privately with finalists and debates choice for school district leader

Austin Beutner, a local civic leader and former Wall Street investment banker, entered Tuesday as the apparent frontrunner for the job of superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Board of Education adjourned late Tuesday after spending more than 10 hours interviewing candidates and trying to reach a decision on who would be the next leader of the nation’s second-largest school system.

When the meeting finally recessed at 10:11 p.m., a spokesman announced only that the school board would reconvene Friday at noon.

For the record:

9:10 a.m. April 18, 2018An earlier version of this article stated that Austin Beutner was on the board of Granada Hills Charter High School. Beutner serves on the board of the foundation that raises money for the charter school.

Going into the day’s meetings, there were apparently four finalists, according to sources who could not be named because they were unauthorized to speak.


The four were former investment banker Austin Beutner, interim Supt. Vivian Ekchian, former Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso and Indianapolis Supt. Lewis Ferebee.

Beutner, 58, appeared to have the inside track.

The lack of an announcement could mean several things: that no one had a majority of votes; that the board or the candidate was still trying for more than a slim 4-3 majority; or that a decision has been made but important details of the employment contract remain under negotiation.

Another possibility is that the board could be trying to bring in a team of leaders with different skills, possibly choosing more than one person to run the district from among a larger pool of candidates.

After the first round of interviews, some of which lasted three hours, the board scheduled finalists for a second round. Ekchian and Ferebee apparently had theirs last week.

Alonso arrived for a Tuesday morning interview and Beutner came in the afternoon, the last to be seen. Beutner had been scheduled for last week, but had postponed his second appearance due to a sore throat, sources told The Times.

L.A. Unified faces rising pension costs, vastly underfunded retiree health benefits and union pressure to raise salaries — all while declining enrollment is draining financial resources.

The district has been without a permanent superintendent since September, when Michelle King went on medical leave. King announced in January that she had cancer and would not return to the job.

Members of the current board majority were elected with support of charter backers. They include Ref Rodriguez, whose tenure on the board has been tenuous since he was charged last fall with three felonies and more than two dozen misdemeanors for alleged political money laundering — allegations he denies.

After the charges were filed, Rodriguez stepped down as board president but did not give up his seat. But his upcoming trial may make holding onto it more difficult.

Rodriguez’s uncertain future is one reason behind a push to name a new superintendent quickly — while the majority is intact.

Charter advocates appear to consider Beutner an ally, though over the last year he has avoided the politically charged topic of charter schools as he raised his profile with the school system. He currently serves on the board of the foundation that raises money for Granada Hills Charter High School and also is a past board member for ICEF Public Schools, a charter group with schools in South Los Angeles.

Ekchian was elevated to interim leader by King and has spent her entire career at L.A. Unified. That background — and the variety of roles she’s handled — would have been powerful qualifications at other times. Now a career association with L.A. Unified often seems more like a liability.

Over the years, the school board has swung between insiders and outsiders. King, who started as an L.A. Unified teacher, was the ultimate insider, and her predecessor Ramon Cortines also had extensive experience in the district as well as valuable experience outside of it, including leading New York’s public schools. His predecessor, John Deasy, was a veteran superintendent but had never worked for L.A. Unified.

The district’s last leader without a background in traditional public education was retired Adm. David Brewer, picked in 2006, who had been in charge of a sizable training program within the Navy. The school board bought out Brewer’s contract in 2008, after concluding that he was not decisive enough.

Brewer’s predecessor was former three-time Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, whose lack of direct education experience was made up for by uber-political skills — in a job that involves intense politics. Romer served six years before leaving on his own terms.

That stability in leadership has been lacking in the years since.


Times staff writers Joy Resmovits and Anna M. Phillips contributed to this report.