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Commentary: King was the right choice for LAUSD right now

Michael Janofsky | January 12, 2016

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Michelle KingI’ve never met Michelle King, but I’ve read enough about her and listened to enough people discussing her that one thing makes perfect sense to me:

She’s the ideal superintendent for LA Unified. For right now.

After all the time and expense — especially the time — district officials spent searching for a successor to Ramon Cortines, the decision to remove the “interim” from King’s job title was the right call —  but maybe not only for the obvious reason, King’s three decades of experience in LA Unified as a teacher, principal and administrator.

More critically, she was the right choice for this particular board — seven people who have lost their taste for a free-lance thinker and would prefer a leader whose problem solving more comports with accepted custom and tradition in LA Unified. In other words, the board wanted someone whose vision was more in line with board group-think than a superintendent clambering along a road less traveled for novel solutions.

Part of all that is the familiarity these board members have with King, a trusted, efficient, loyal aide whose career trajectory was a testament to such old-fashioned concepts as success, collegiality and collaboration.

But there appears more to the choice, as well, and it has to do with the new superintendent’s inheritance — a district on the edge, always on the edge, through serious and unrelenting structural issues that threaten a quality public education for children through no fault of their own.

Unlike new superintendents elsewhere, King is assuming command at a time the spectrum of challenges makes it easy to raise the district’s ultimate and existential question: Is it simply too big to deliver the kind of education hoped for and promised by those in charge of delivering it?

Just think about events of the last six to 12 months: An independent financial review panel has predicted near-at-hand deficits that could reach as much as $600 million. One of its recommendations is cutting back union benefits and pension while the teachers union, for one, has vowed not to let that happen.

The district is losing nearly three percent of its students every year, costing hundreds of thousands in lost state and federal revenues, many of them moving on to charter schools. And the hemorrhaging now comes as charter school groups are mounting a major plan to pull even more kids out of traditional district schools.

Further, academic performance across the district, as measured by the new state tests, was awful, raising questions about the usual culprits of tests, testing, teaching methods, learning abilities, bad neighborhoods, English deficit, something else, anything else. In any case, it’s a major challenge to show improve in the next round, this spring.

No doubt the search firm hired by the district produced a slate of admirable candidates with education backgrounds, including Kelvin Adams, who has won great acclaim for turning around the St. Louis school district as superintendent. Adams was the runner-up. Other candidates also drew high marks from the board, like Richard Carranza, the superintendent of San francisco Unified, who withdrew for unstated reasons but one probably that he was outed in media speculation as a candidate.

But all the also-rans have one thing in common: The districts they lead are far smaller than LA Unified in size, scope, budget and challenge. Adams, for example, oversees 27,000 students with an annual budget of $285 million. LA Unified has 644,000 kids and a budget of $12 billion.

From a practical standpoint, that gives King the added advantage of serving as superintendent starting today, a seamless transition from Cortines, rather than a time months from now after an outsider fathomed the magnitude of the job, not to mention the personalities of the board members in charge.

That difference, alone, makes King the best choice to lead LA Unified through its current briar patch of issues. If she guides it through successfully and demonstrates the political skills to balance competing interests in every issue before her, the board will have no further need of a search firm anytime soon.


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