L.A. school board ironing out kinks in search process for new superintendent

The team from an executive search firm waits to work with Los Angeles school board members at Tuesday's meeting. Henry Gmitro, second from right, addressed the board during a brief public session regarding the hunt for a new schools superintendent.

The team from an executive search firm waits to work with Los Angeles school board members at Tuesday’s meeting. Henry Gmitro, second from right, addressed the board during a brief public session regarding the hunt for a new schools superintendent.

(Howard Blume)

Even nailing down a process for choosing a Los Angeles schools superintendent proved complicated this week. The Board of Education met behind closed doors for three hours Tuesday night, most of the time in conference with an executive search firm.

The goal was to hammer out how to find the next leader of the nation’s second-largest school system. But when weary board members emerged from the back room — at about 9:15 p.m. — they were not ready to release any information.

“I feel good about the progress we’ve made,” said board member Ref Rodriguez, without elaborating on the details. “And I’m optimistic that the process will be transparent, thorough and will lead us to a successful candidate.”

Current Supt. Ramon C. Cortines has said he would like to depart by the end of the year. Cortines, 83, came out of retirement to manage the district nearly a year ago, after John Deasy resigned under pressure. Cortines took part in Tuesday’s meeting.


Before the board met in private, members of the public saw a sampling of what was under consideration in a presentation that lasted about 20 minutes.

The board’s original plan was to handle the topic entirely in secret, but general counsel David Holmquist said a portion of the discussion needed to take place in the open.

Speaking and fielding questions was Henry Gmitro, president of Hazard, Young, Attea & Assoc., based in Rosemont, Ill. In an earlier public meeting, he’d said that a confidential search would yield the best crop of candidates. But that left open the question of how to include community participation.

Gmitro said his firm would distribute a survey to individuals and groups designated by the Board of Education. He also provided a sample survey that, he said, was based on “an analysis on the research of effective superintendents.”

The survey “becomes a critical part of the leadership profile,” he said.

In addition, Gmitro said, his team expected to spend several weeks interviewing board members, constituent groups and focus groups composed of community members.

“All of that information also becomes part of the input process,” he explained.

The sample survey supplied by Gmitro touched on desired qualities in a leader: vision and values; instructional leadership; community engagement; and management. A fifth section dealt with perceptions about the school district, and the last offered an open-ended response and a chance to recommend candidates.


Board member Monica Ratliff didn’t like that the category of “management” was placed toward the end of the survey. She also thought some of the survey items were so obvious that they would yield little meaningful feedback.

Obviously, anyone would want a superintendent who holds employees accountable for their performance, she said, referring to part of the survey.

That “kind of wastes this space here,” she said.

Board member Scott Schmerelson said he’d like to see a survey question about the importance of choosing an educator who’d been a successful teacher and campus administrator.


Board member George McKenna thought that all of the survey questions were predictable and that people would want “everything on here.”

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His comments then drifted to what he would want to learn from a candidate for superintendent. He said he’d like to know: “Who are you? Not what you want, [but] what do you believe in?”

“Most people can’t answer that because it requires introspection,” McKenna said. He’d also want to know what a person succeeded in doing and what they tried at but failed.


“Some of the greatest shortstops in the world made a lot of errors, but they can field the ball,” McKenna said.

In an interview, board President Steve Zimmer said that he was sorry that he could not provide details about what happened in closed session, but added that soon there would be a public timetable on how things would move forward.

In addition, he said, “We were able to do the work that will get us to a survey process that can start even before the next board meeting,” he said.

“The end product,” he said, “is the best superintendent to lead the most important school district in the nation at one of the most pivotal moments for public education in Los Angeles.”


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