A slow start for LAUSD’s first public meeting on next superintendent
Mike Szymanski | October 20, 2015
“We are just beginning,” said Hank Gmitro, president of the firm conducting the search, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates. “We provide the venue and see who shows up. This group had a lot to say.”
Last night’s gathering was the first of 24 public meetings scheduled throughout the district as part of the firm’s efforts to identify candidates to succeed Ramon Cortines, who plans to step down in December. The district wants the public to weigh in before the firm develops a list of candidates.
Gmitro, who is the president of the firm, had to pull from his teaching days to get the initially-shy group involved in opening up. He used his “principal voice” to reach everyone in the cavernous room, but went back to using microphones to help staff translating English and Spanish over headsets.
Two of his colleagues, Joe Farley and Maria Ott, both former superintendents, like Gmitro, took notes for a “Leadership Profile” that will be presented to the school board on Nov. 11. Board president Steve Zimmer popped in to see how things were going, but said nothing.
“I think that the school board will listen to us, I think these meetings are important,” said Roberto Bustillo, who attended with his granddaughter and has a son in high school. He is the community organizing director of Innercity Struggle, a group that advocates for economic equity in schools. He said he was disappointed in the turnout but hopes to get the word out for the remaining meetings to his membership.
“We need to tell people how important it is to participate in the process. I am personally concerned about the charter movement,” he said.
Many parents and teachers brought up personal issues with their schools but pointed to how their concerns could be addressed by a new leader for the district.
“We need someone who likes teachers,” said Riverside Elementary School teacher Mario Burrell. “It was obvious that (former superintendent) John Deasy did not like teachers.”
Burrell said he taught at the school for 18 years and worked for nine principals but no superintendent ever asked him or the community, “How do you feel about your principal?”
Lucia Ortiz, 16, got her mom to bring her to the meeting so she could advocate for students’ having greater access to the superintendent. The Abraham Lincoln High School student council president said, “The superintendent and school board are lacking in having a student voice in their decision-making.”
Did she think the meeting would make a difference? “Yes, I think the process will work,” she said. “I think they listened to me tonight.”
As a continuous slide show in English and Spanish showed facts about the district, the search firm solicited feedback by asking what people liked and didn’t like about the district.
A father from San Fernando High School asked, “Is this just a ploy to get parents out here and make us feel better about the process? I think parents should be on the committee to hire and choose the right person. I also don’t think that the district should pay the superintendent the equivalent of $1,000 a day.”
Gmitro explained that the public had elected the school board members to pick the best candidate to lead the school district, an assertion that did not satisfy everyone.
Luz M. Montoya, a mother, said she would like to see a young, energetic superintendent with new ideas, but insisted, “You already have candidates and have the choice made.”
Gmitro explained, “Nothing could be further from the truth. We have no list of candidates, we are getting a sense of what we are looking for first.”
Another mother, Rachel Greene, said she wanted to know how stakeholders can be assured that the process was playing out as advertised.
Gmitro assured, “I do not have the sense from any board member that they have preconceived ideas of who the superintendent should be.
Helen Bernstein High School English teacher Wayne Lewis said he thought the next superintendent should be someone already involved in the district. “It should be someone with a clear understanding between public and charter schools and someone who would avoid playing political games with the process.” He later said, “Experience, experience, experience” is important, especially prior teaching experience.
One of the first people to arrive at the downtown school campus was Elsa Villareal, the mother of two high schoolers, who said, “All of the schools have problems. The schools need more support of the superintendent.”
Another parent, Felicity Ortiz, said some schools have teachers lacking credentials. She said she wanted a superintendent who has “a lot of knowledge of science, and be god-fearing.”
With the public meetings ongoing, Gmitro is also meeting privately with other groups, including union leaders and district staff members. On Monday, prior to the community meeting, he met with the Student Advisory Council who works directly with the superintendent.
“They had a lot to say, it is valuable information,” Gmitro said.