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Commentary: Disunity in finding a new boss for LA Unified

Michael Janofsky | October 28, 2015

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superintendent searchThe effort to find a consensus candidate to follow Ramon Cortines into the superintendent’s office is playing out as difficult issues sometimes do in LA Unified, with good intentions undermined by political pandering and a bit of disingenuousness.

While Steve Zimmer, the board president, has set in motion a thoughtful and reasonable approach to the search by hiring a well-regarded firm to identify quality candidates, he and his board colleagues are doing their best to shatter unity, rather than build it.

The friction has developed over the district’s decision to involve the public while keeping confidential — as head hunters recommend — the actual recruiting, selection and hiring.

Both are noble pursuits but for reasons that are entirely incompatible if the board is truly seeking the best candidate available.

The decision to include public opinion mirrors the district’s oft-professed need for “transparency,” a worthy goal in many circumstances. But the invitation with regard to the superintendent search is only for h’ors oeuvres, not the entree. In this case, that’s probably the way it should be.

Through open meetings and an online survey, the district has been asking what “characteristics” the new superintendent should have. “Your voice counts,” says the invitation to take the survey.

But counts for what?

The survey asks people to rate a series of assertions in the order of relative importance. Here’s an example, the “Instructional Leadership” page: 

  • Holding a deep understanding of the teaching/learning process.
  • Providing guidance for district-wide curriculum and instruction
  • Promoting the importance of providing safe and caring school environments.
  • Integrating personalized educational opportunities into the instructional program.
  • Utilizing student achievement data to drive the District’s instructional decision making.

Wouldn’t the most highly-qualified candidate hold all these choices with equal and utmost importance?  Put another way, would anyone want a superintendent who values any one choice less than the others? In that context, a public preference is meaningless.

It could be that people across the district are seeing the effort for what it appears to be, a feel-good exercise to give parents and students a sense that they’re involved when they’re really not.

After a week, about 4,000 people took the survey, one for every 162 students in the district, and many of the meetings held across the city have attracted crowds in the tens.

Various community groups are upset that they are being shut out of the process, an angry mood that has caught the attention of the board’s two Mónicas. At a meeting a few weeks ago, Mónica Ratliff introduced a motion to bring the finalists before the community for a weigh-in. It failed, 4-3.

At a meeting yesterday, Monica García introduced a motion to create a committee of outsiders to vet the finalists. That one went down, 5-2.

Five of the seven board members saw some value in the two motions — or got a loud enough earful from community groups — because only Zimmer and board vice president George McKenna voted no on both. They were right to do so.

Imagine yourself a valued and successful superintendent in a medium-to-large district who is poised to take the next career step. You’re an ideal candidate for the LA Unified job. But as one of a handful of finalists, you are told you need to undergo public scrutiny before a final decision is made.

“Have a blast,” says your current board. “But don’t come back.”

In one of his arguments against the Ratliff proposal, McKenna reminded his colleagues that constituents elected each board member to carry out the responsibility of running the school district.

So far, they have held fast to a process in which confidentiality is assured for the sake of finding the most highly-qualified candidates. Otherwise, there is no real need for a search firm. The last time the district hired a new superintendent, the board decided against using a search firm.

Anyone remember how that turned out?

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