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Seeking a superhero? L.A. school board gets advice on next superintendent

Consultant Hank Gmitro gathers public input on the qualities desired in the next L.A. schools superintendent during a recent public forum at Van Nuys High School.

Consultant Hank Gmitro gathers public input on the qualities desired in the next L.A. schools superintendent during a recent public forum at Van Nuys High School.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The people have spoken about what they want in a new superintendent for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and the hunt for Superman or Superwoman is on.

The official verdict is that Los Angeles’ students, parents, district staff, clergy and others, want a “politically savvy and experienced educational leader,” according to the search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates. A look at the details, however, suggests that even Kryptonite could not stop the particular paragon being sought.

The executive search firm was scheduled to present its findings at a school board meeting Tuesday, based on input gathered from surveys filled out by more than 8,000 respondents and notes compiled from more than 100 public meetings held during the last two weeks of October. About 1,200 people participated in those meetings. The nation’s second-largest school system enrolls about 650,000 students.

Superpowers would come in handy in a district facing a troubled financial outlook, threats to dismantle it and pressure to improve lagging academic performance.

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“Many participants believe the position is one of the most important jobs in American educational leadership and comes at a critical point in the history of the district,” the consultants wrote in one of their reports, which are available on the district website.

The Board of Education is looking to replace Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, 83, who has said he would like to retire by the end of the year. Cortines agreed to return after John Deasy resigned under pressure a year ago.

Although board members have promised to seriously consider the community input, they and the consultants already had been thinking about who they want. And the consultants have been speaking with potential candidates for several weeks.

Nonetheless, to the extent that the feedback matters, there are some defining characteristics that could be used to frame the board’s choice. The consultants, for example, reported that an educator is favored, someone with “experience as a teacher and a principal working in an urban environment,” preferably with a doctorate from a fully accredited institution of higher learning.

This preference alone would disqualify two of the last four superintendents.

And recent holders of the office also might have trouble with “developing a strong partnership with the Board of Education.”

A few of the listed traits are commendable, but not necessarily helpful to finding a superintendent, such as the need for someone who “holds a deep understanding of and belief in social justice.”

As an instructional leader, the desired person—should a human be bold enough to apply—would “inspire teachers, administrators and staff to be student focused, forward thinking and lifelong learners,” among other characteristics.

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The successful applicant also should be “visible and accessible” and communicate regularly with all groups “both by sharing information and genuinely seeking input before decisions are made” while demonstrating “a high level of emotional intelligence by gaining trust and engendering respect through collaborative interactions” with everyone.

The chosen one also must have plans for the long-term health and stability of L.A. Unified, and, while a secret formula or magical spell is not required, that task will prove difficult enough. On the same day that the board learned what to look for in a leader, a separate, independent task force was to present its conclusion that the financial outlook for the district is shaky: state tax support could shrink, basic revenue could drop as enrollment declines and the district is spending too much and paying too many, based on what it can afford.

Even so, people who provided input have not lost hope.

“Interview and focus group participants are optimistic about the school district’s future and seek a superintendent who can lead the way forward for the entire community,” the consultants wrote.

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howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume


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