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Commentary: On a momentous day, where was Vladovic?

Michael Janofsky | October 17, 2014

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Richard Vladovic

Richard Vladovic

What a momentous day it was. One superintendent out. Another steps in.

The LA Unified community and social media were alive with chatter — people sorry to see John Deasy go, people celebrating his departure, people happy to see Ray Cortines return for a third deployment, people wondering what the school board was smoking in bringing him back.

So many comments, opinions and responses.

But one person was conspicuously absent.

Board President Richard Vladovic had nothing to say.

Apart from whatever contribution he made to the district’s “joint statement” from the board and Deasy, he issued no press release. He made himself available for no interviews. He made no public appearances to talk about the day’s events.

He appeared to be missing in inaction.

At times of crisis and change — in a family, an organization, even a public agency — constituents want a comforting word that everything will be okay, that problems will be solved, that divisions will be closed, even if it’s more hope than certainty.

In the case of the LA Unified family, teachers deprived of raises for years might like to know there could be better times ahead, parents might like to hear that their kids’ schedules will be straightened out, students might appreciate encouragement to stay the course despite the messes created by the grownups.

If there were ever a moment for a leader to step forward at a critical time from within a bureaucracy wracked by divisiveness, technological dysfunction and public discontent, this was it. And the logical person to utter those soothing words would have been the school board president, the elected face of the school district, second-biggest in the country.

But in this case, the school board president had nothing more to say beyond the joint statement, or so his office advised.

Other board members were quiet, too, but they don’t set the board agenda. The board president does.

The guy out front was Steve Zimmer, vice president of the board. Maybe Zimmer wants to be the president; or maybe he has enough on his plate with his teaching job and his board service to leave the presidency to another.

In either case, he was the face of the district yesterday.

Zimmer was a prime architect of the deals announced yesterday, and people familiar with his role said be exhausted his time and energy on crafting the deals and making them stick. He said he never worked harder on anything, and he was jittery to the end that something might fall apart.

And so he was everywhere yesterday — on radio and TV, talking to reporters, all in an effort to help make it make sense, that one chapter in LA Unified was ending and another beginning and there are still enough dedicated people throughout the district to keep kids on track and problems from getting worse.

Some would say Zimmer can’t help himself, talking. He’s one of the chattiest members during any board meeting, even if his round-about explanations often cry out for an editor. One can only imagine what he’s like in closed-door meetings.

But he’s one of those members who always lets you know where he stands because he speaks out. Tamar Galatzan is like that. So is Monica Ratliff, and in his quiet way, so is Bennett Kayser.

Eventually, all members let you know where they stand when they vote. But it’s instructive to get a sense of how they think.

In that sense, Vladovic is the board’s mystery man. Maybe he was active behind the scenes during this transition. Who knows. But the appearance of his involvement was no more evident than his contributions to lively debates the other board members have at their meetings.

Sitting at the head of the table, he rarely expresses a strong opinion one way or another. He welcomes people to the microphone. He sets the order of debate in pointing to you, you, then you. He asks students where they’re going to college, what they want to study, and responds the same whatever they say: “Outstanding.”

But you seldom get a sense of how he arrives at any decision, and yesterday was the same.

Of course, there’s a counter-argument here, that he stayed behind the curtain because he is running for re-election next year and he actually doesn’t think things will change — that even under the guiding hand of an old-hand in Cortines, the district will just lumber along as before, only now without Deasy as everyone’s favorite punching bag.

If that’s the case, LA Unified didn’t just need to hear from a strong board president yesterday. It needs to hear from one today, tomorrow and all the next-days that follow.

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