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L.A. school official criticizes and seeks to limit leaks about superintendent search

L.A. school official criticizes and seeks to limit leaks about superintendent search
Los Angeles schools Supt. Ramon Cortines, left, talks with board President Steve Zimmer before a meeting. Zimmer is helping to guide the confidential search to replace Cortines, who is retiring. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

An important drama involving the Los Angeles Board of Education -- selecting its schools chief -- is playing out in private, and officials this week said they are determined to keep it that way, even though some details are getting out.

Exactly nine district people know precisely which individuals are being considered for the job, according to L.A. school board President Steve Zimmer and others, and he, for one, seems confident that they are keeping mum.

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Despite this pact of secrecy, word has spread about some people being considered. They include San Francisco Supt. Richard Carranza, L.A. Unified Deputy Supt. Michelle King and Fremont Unified Supt. Jim Morris, who formerly worked for L.A. Unified.

These three and all others contacted by The Times have declined to be interviewed.

The problem for school board members is that no matter how diligently they try to close the circle, there are documents visible to others, travel arrangements to be made and astute observers in other places and even other cities. And friends, colleagues and family members in L.A. Unified or other districts are under no vow of silence.

The issue matters to board members because they want applicants to aspire to the L.A. job without putting their current position at risk.

"The purpose of conducting a confidential search was to ensure the best possible candidates could apply to lead what we believe to be the most important school district in the nation," Zimmer said in a statement after The Times revealed some of those under consideration.

In an interview, Zimmer said he wants applicants to know that people involved in the selection process had nothing to do with the leaks.

"People need to know that they can trust us," said Zimmer.

The nine district people in the know are the seven school board members, district general counsel David Holmquist and board executive officer Jefferson Crain. Also participating is lead search-firm consultant Hank Gmitro.

Managing confidential matters is a regular part of the job for Holmquist and for Crain, who handles documents, meeting schedules and legal compliance for the board.

Current L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, who plans to retire this month, said he lacks complete knowledge about potential candidates and has tried to stay out of the process.

He'll forward to the board a name that is suggested to him, he said, but he's trying to avoid aspirants who want to meet. He does not want to be seen as endorsing anyone or playing favorites.

Even getting boilerplate comments from board members has been difficult. On Tuesday, board newcomer Ref Rodriguez froze, speechless, when asked for a comment of any sort regarding the superintendent search.

(He also was clearly exhausted after nearly 14 hours of meetings, nearly half that time in closed session related to the superintendent search.)

His colleague, veteran board member Richard Vladovic, came to the rhetorical rescue.

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"Selecting a superintendent is the board's most important job," Vladovic said. "We're doing what's necessary to pick the best."

When similarly pressed, board member Scott Schmerelson paused thoughtfully then offered, "We're working closer and closer every day."

No outsiders, apparently, have learned the full list of those with a shot at being hired. But the effort is attracting national attention. When Atlanta Supt. Meria Carstarphen surfaced as a potential candidate in an article in The Times on Friday, the Atlanta school system responded immediately.

"Supt. Carstarphen is one of the nation's most outstanding public education leaders," said Jill Strickland Luse, executive director of Communications & Public Engagement.

"It is no surprise that her name would come up in a superintendent search. We are all flattered by the consideration. We continue to appreciate and admire the great work Dr. Carstarphen is doing to make Atlanta Public Schools a high-performing district that prepares students to graduate ready for colleges and careers of their choice."

The board's next private session for the superintendent search will be Sunday.

Twitter: @howardblume 

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