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First public meeting to pick a new L.A. schools chief is small but gets lively

About two dozen people showed up Monday evening to the Roybal Learning Center just west of downtown, to talk about what they want in a new L.A. schools chief. Consultant Hank Gmitro, a retired superintendent, led the meeting.

About two dozen people showed up Monday evening to the Roybal Learning Center just west of downtown, to talk about what they want in a new L.A. schools chief. Consultant Hank Gmitro, a retired superintendent, led the meeting.

(Howard Blume / Los Angeles Times)

The nation’s second-largest school district invited the public Monday to talk about what they want in a leader, but only about two dozen people showed up.

The meeting took place in the auditorium at Roybal Learning Center just west of downtown, the first of many gatherings scheduled by the Los Angeles Unified School District. Officials tried to make community members feel welcome, offering coffee cake, bottled water and other goodies, enough for a much larger crowd.

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L.A. Unified hopes to select a superintendent by the end of the year, which is when current Supt. Ramon C. Cortines has said he would like to step down. The Board of Education has decided to recruit, evaluate and interview applicants confidentially, but it also insists that community input matters to them. School board President Steve Zimmer attended the forum, but he did not take part.

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Consultant Hank Gmitro, a retired superintendent, led the meeting, cajoling people to talk, engaging them in conversation. No one seemed to want to speak first, so Gmitro tried to break the ice by asking what people liked about the LAUSD.

After a slightly awkward silence that seemed a lot longer than it was, parent Rachel Greene commented that very experienced teachers need additional support.

Anyone else? Gmitro asked.

Again, silence.

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So, restated Gmitro, there needs to be programs to help teachers provide services to students with unique needs. Are students getting these services, he wanted to know.

“If they have someone there to fight for it,” Greene responded.

Gmitro returned to asking what people like about L.A. Unified schools.

Greene politely filled the gap again.

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“It’s right down the street,” she offered.

“Close by,” echoed Gmitro.

His two colleagues from Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates got it down; they’ll be submitting a report on community input to the school board. On its website, the district lists 25 public forums, but the total number of meetings is even larger, as times also are set aside for principals, for teachers, for civic leaders and other specific groups.

Eventually, other people joined in and the conversation got more lively

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Wayne V. Lewis, a teacher at Bernstein High School, said the next superintendent would need to appreciate the differences between traditional schools and charter schools and would need a thorough understanding of operations, based on having served in various roles in a school system. And the school board, which will choose the schools chief, and others should “avoid playing political games with the process.”

Lewis later objected to participants referring to the next superintendent as “he.” Lewis also made it clear that he would like to see Michelle King, the district’s second-in-command, get the job.

“We always look outside for solutions,” he said. “But everything she’s ever touched she’s done well.” The next leader “should be part of the system and proud of the system.”

The ability to rein in and oversee charter schools was important to several teachers and parents, who believe charters are draining resources from L.A. Unified and pushing out students who are harder to educate.

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Charters are independently operated and exempt from some rules that govern traditional schools.

An even more consistent refrain was the call for an experienced educator to run L.A. Unified. One person hoped the leader also would be “God-fearing,” due to all the challenges ahead.

Lucia Ortiz, 16, a senior at Lincoln High, wanted students to have a greater voice in decisions.

The session was conducted in English and Spanish, with the aid of wireless headsets and translators.

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“I see that the schools have many problems,” said Elsa Villareal, a parent at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex, speaking in Spanish.

“So you’d like to see those problems addressed by the new superintendent?” Gmitro responded in English.

“Yes,” said Villareal.

The concerns of parent Guillermina Ceuva, also speaking in Spanish, included the amount of money that went to raises for the teachers union rather than to benefit students. She also deplored the cheapening of course credits: “They were practically giving away diplomas.”

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“Students need to have a high-quality education and currently the superintendent has failed at that,” she said.

Gmitro also learned that the next superintendent needs the human touch, should monitor schools more closely, must select better principals, focus on training and supporting teachers, and provide technology without spending wastefully.

“He should be impartial,” said Samson Blancas Jr., a parent and site council member at Monroe High. “He must not be influenced by personal feelings and biases .… He must be open-minded and willing to work with others.”

“Impartial, fair, open-minded,” summarized Gmitro.

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His team got that down, too.

“We’ll stay as long as you want to,” Gmitro assured all who wanted to speak. But he also reminded them: “We do have treats in the back.”

After about an hour and 15 minutes, Gmitro reminded them again of the refreshments, and at this point, participants were ready for coffee cake.

Twitter: @howardblume

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