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Commentary: For LAUSD, maybe it’s not the time to hire an outsider

Michael Janofsky | November 23, 2015

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superintendent search LAUSDIt’s getting down to crunch time: Thanksgiving . . . Christmas . . . Last day on the job for LA Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines.

By next week, names for his replacement will begin to flow with a list of candidates that could include such well-regarded figures from across the county as Rudy Crew, a former Chancellor of New York City schools; Alberto M. Carvalho, Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools;  Valeria Silva, superintendent of St. Paul’s public schools; and Richard Carranza, superintendent of schools in San Francisco.

No doubt all of them have fine resumes.

But in thinking about what awaits the next occupant of Cortines’s 24th floor office, one might wonder if an outsider with little knowledge of the district would necessarily make the best choice for LA Unified, given the issues at hand. Never mind the larger question, why would anyone even want the job. Consider the current state of affairs:

  • An independent financial review panel just reported that the district is facing deficits that could reach $600 million within four years.
  • The district is hemorrhaging students, nearly three percent a year, costing hundreds of thousands in lost state and federal revenues.
  • Pressure is mounting on the district to reduce health care benefits and increase employee pension contribution, already triggering union opposition.
  • Academic performance across the district was abysmal, judging by the most recent statewide tests.
  • The charter war within the district is intensifying, with a plan by outsiders to create hundreds more charter schools to serve as many as half the district enrollment.
  • The seven members of the elected school board, who serve as the superintendent’s bosses, are hard-pressed to agree on what day it is, let alone on how to solve intractable problems.

No doubt, the winning candidate would convince all or most of the board members that the challenges are not insurmountable. Pay and benefits are not likely to be issues. The winner can expect a deal worth upwards of $300,000 a year with lots of perqs.

But here’s the thing. The learning curve to run a district of this size and complexity is long and steep even in normal times, with uncountable numbers of students, teachers, assistants, deputies, administrators, schools, labor leaders, political operatives, state officials —  and issues: Difficult, politically-charged, financially-challenged, board-polarizing issues.

Cortines was such a genius choice to follow John Deasy’s departure last year because he knew the district, and he knew where the bodies were buried. Heck, he might have buried them. But the lavish praise he has received on this, his farewell tour, after serving twice before as superintendent, owes to his intimate knowledge of the district and its wide array of challenges.

It’s also a tribute to his ability to understand and manage the vicissitudes of seven disparate board members.

It’s a safe bet that the search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea, has scoured the nation to find sterling candidates with resumes that reflect success — but success elsewhere. LA Unified is different; success elsewhere doesn’t necessarily predict success here.

Nor has the board given any indication it wants a superintendent with an out-sized personality or predetermined agenda. The members may not even want a visionary. Deasy was a visionary of sorts. He had his heart in the right place with the iPad thing, but we all know how that turned out.

The district has its roadmap for the next few years. It was laid out rather clearly in the financial panel report delivered two weeks ago. The authors identified problems and recommended solutions. It would appear prudent that whoever is hired would follow closely along.

It could be, though, that an outsider, even a star from somewhere else, might prefer charting his or her own path, rather than be tied to a waiting prescription. That’s totally understandable. But that’s also why it might make sense to turn the reins over to someone more familiar with the terrain — a current or former senior administrator — to steer the district through the potholes that lie ahead.

A return to solvency should take three years, maybe four, during which the board will make the critical decisions that will shape the district for the foreseeable future. By then, a more stable district might be better situated to hire a leader, maybe from elsewhere, who is free to chart a more independent, even visionary course.

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