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For LA’s next superintendent, school board members want a unanimous choice

Mike Szymanski | January 17, 2018

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Michelle King two years ago when she was introduced as Los Angeles’ new superintendent. (Photo: Getty Images – Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

LA Unified’s school board members want a new superintendent they can all support.

They would like to get a unanimous decision, as it was with Michelle King’s selection two years ago. They also want public input on the choice and to have a new leader in place by the time school starts in August.

“Yes, I would like to see it be unanimous,” board President Mónica García said about the next pick for superintendent. “It is one of the most important jobs for the board, to pick the next leader for our schools.”

García said the board has committed to weekly conversations about the superintendent search, to be discussed at the Tuesday board meetings, in both open and closed sessions. No decisions have been made about hiring a search firm, getting community input, or setting deadlines, García said.

In their closed session meeting Tuesday, García said the board approved the contract for King’s interim replacement, Vivian Ekchian, and that next steps weren’t discussed. The superintendent search didn’t come up during the public afternoon meeting.

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King announced Jan. 5 that she will leave her job by the end of June because she is fighting cancer. She has been on medical leave since September. She will officially retire from her $350,000-a-year job on June 30.

For two of the seven board members, this will be their first time to be part of a superintendent selection. Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez were elected to the board last spring.

“A unanimous decision would be ideal, but I can’t speak for my fellow board members,” Gonez said. “It’s a mutual decision, we will have to choose the candidate, and the candidate has to choose us. Making the decision on a unified front may be more reassuring to the person coming in, than doing so with divisions.”

Gonez added, “For me, ideally, I would like to have a new superintendent before the next school year. That would be six months or so, but I’m not married to any particular number if it takes longer to find the right person, then that’s probably the right decision to make.”

Board member Ref Rodriguez, who last fall stepped down as board president as he faces criminal charges related to campaign donations, said he would also like to see a superintendent in place by the beginning of the next school year. He added, “I would prefer a 7-0 vote and believe we can get there.”

The last search started in September 2015, when Ramon Cortines said he would retire after serving three times as superintendent. The board in January 2016 decided on King, an insider with more than 30 years at the district in positions including teacher, principal, and associate superintendent.

At the open meeting this week, the board said nothing about the superintendent search.

Although Gonez said she wants to see an open and transparent process in the superintendent selection, she is not sure she would go as far as her predecessor Mónica Ratliff, who fought for a more open process throughout the last superintendent search. Ratliff asked for the names of the top three choices be named publicly and be invited to a forum, as had been done in past LA Unified superintendent searches.

Current board members Scott Schmerelson and Richard Vladovic agreed with Ratliff and voted with her for the candidate names to be released; they lost 3-4.   

During the last search, García led the charge to have a select panel of community members review the superintendent candidates in secret because she wanted more stakeholder input into the selection. Rodriguez agreed with her, but they lost the vote 2-5, and García walked out of the meeting.

For the last search, the board picked the headhunter search firm of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, which included some former superintendents from neighboring districts. It had placed 45 superintendents in the nation’s 100 largest school districts and charged $160,000 for the search that yielded King. They said more than 100 applicants applied.

The board members also wouldn’t say whether they would prefer an insider like King or someone from outside the district. The HYA search firm said that about 60 percent of districts that they have helped have chosen outsiders.

As diverse as the board has been in the past, García said unanimity can be found.

“What’s important is that we put in the time and honor and respect in electing a superintendent that will serve us best,” García said.

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