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After hot debate, LAUSD board refines superintendent criteria

Mike Szymanski | November 17, 2015

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SteveZimmer8After 90 minutes of contentious debate, the LAUSD school board agreed on a list of desired characteristics for the superintendent candidates they will begin interviewing.

The discussion ran the gamut from the definition of the word “bold” to whether the members wanted someone with experience in an “urban environment.”

Ultimately, the one-page list of desired characteristics they approved is only a template, more guidelines than a mandate. The list is designed to help the search firm, Hazard, Young Attea and Associates, find suitable candidates to be interviewed but will not keep candidates from consideration if they don’t meet all the criteria.

“We won’t take someone out because they do not meet all the characteristics on this document,” said search firm president Hank Gmitro, adding, “The idea behind the critieria is to find the ideal person, and as we look at resumes, we will assess and match them against that criteria and see how well they fit in that profile.”

From this point, the next major phases of the search process will be conducted largely in private. The board intends to develop questions for candidates as they come forward, leading to a list of finalists. The goal is to have a successor to Ramon Cortines in place by Jan. 1. Cortines, who is 83, said he intends to step down by the end of the year.

The 7-0 vote to approve the profile came after several members campaigned hard to insert or change language as they wrangled over additions they felt were ignored or underemphasized in the draft document before them.

At one point, for example, Mónica García, who represents some of the poorest areas of the city, seemed insulted when others did not warm her insistence on stressing urban experience and said, “I want to go on the record, on this side of town it does matter.”

She pressed her point by asserting that the new superintendent will need the savvy to deal with everything from strong labor unions to 45,000 children using school buses each day to the daily service of 650,000 meals. She wanted to add the words “bold” and “urgency” in the document somewhere because, she said, “When we are successful, we save lives.”

Mónica Ratliff and board President Steve Zimmer said it wasn’t important to them to have the “urban” wording in the list of desired characteristics. Ratliff said a candidate could be just as good if he or she came from a rural or agricultural area.

“You need to be have worked in urban America; it is different,” García protested, and looked to the audience that was more than half reporters and photographers. “There is a bigger media presence here.”

Board member George McKenna suggested that the word “bold” could be interpreted as reckless. “I know a lot of bold teenagers who make reckless decisions, sometimes bold is reckless, and they do things out of impulse,” he said. That caused Garcia to look up the definition and read it to the board.

Garcia also wanted to add that the superintendent be committed to “eradicate bias and eliminate deficit thinking.” The board agreed. She said, “These are the most important pieces of our next leader, I think it matters.”

McKenna also said he didn’t believe the list was particularly specific, saying, “This could be criteria for any superintendent anywhere; this is nothing unique to LA Unified.”

Zimmer explained that the list was a “collective thing to continue to guide us through the process.”

Ratliff thought that one of the bulleted points — “Have experience as an educational leader in school district or other public institution of similar complexity” — was essentially useless because LAUSD is so large and unique, it would be impossible to meet that criterion. She suggested changing it to a “challenging” district.

Zimmer said he had hoped that most of the discussion would take place in the closed session that followed, but Ratliff challenged that and said, “My feeling is that we hash out the desired characteristics in public, that is my preference.”

In time, the members agreed that the document wouldn’t satisfy all of them  — and it really didn’t matter. It was just “to determine who might be the best match for the district,” as Gmitro said, pointing to the interviews as the more critical part of the process.

“I don’t want to wordsmith anymore,” board member Richard Vladovic, eager to get on with the process.

While the closed session lasted more than an hour, it ended with no announcement, which suggested that little of the profile had changed since the vote to approve it.

It’s now headed for posting on the district and search firm websites for the benefit of the public and for all the potential candidates out there so they know what they’re getting into.

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