In Partnership with 74

LAUSD board seeks ‘disruption’ from next superintendent

Mike Szymanski | January 31, 2018

Your donation will help us produce journalism like this. Please give today.

In the context of the search for its next superintendent, LA Unified’s school board is asking existential questions about how hard it should be pushing to disrupt the status quo in a system that serves more than 700,000 students. While none of the conversations came particularly full-circle in a special meeting of the board on Tuesday, a variety of ideas were thrown out about the future of a system that continues to grapple with achievement, equity, and operational challenges. 

Tuesday was the fourth time the board has met since Superintendent Michelle King announced she will retire at the end of June because she is fighting cancer, but it was the first time they addressed the superintendent search in public. Even then, specifics of the search were left to the afternoon’s closed-door session. The five and a half hours in public were spent hammering out goals.

Board members agreed that “disruption” is needed to address the district’s most pressing problems, which they listed as low-performing schools, fiscal woes, and increased cooperation between independent charter and district schools.

On Wednesday, board President Mónica García said the need for disruption doesn’t necessarily rule out a superintendent candidate from within the district, which could include “a graduate, a parent, or an employee from the district.”

But it should be one someone who is not afraid of change. “We need some resistance or we will never change,” George McKenna said at the board meeting. 

•Read more: Exclusive: LAUSD plans to use same search firm to find a new superintendent — and it gets a break on the cost

The board’s goal Tuesday was to iron out a “declaration” for the school district, crafting a set of values to use when assessing superintendent candidates. They agreed their new leader should:

• lead with urgency 

• increase student achievement

• ensure economic security

• get every child college- and career-ready.

But there was less agreement on how to get to change. Their ideas included:

• Pushing more dollars to classrooms and students

• Listening to what principals need to improve schools

• Giving local districts a chance to be more innovative through waivers and autonomy in hiring staff

• Decentralizing services and resources

• Piloting a program to improve middle schools

• Moving to a portfolio model where charters are more a part of the district and include them in the new unified enrollment system

• Making the charter division smaller and more aggressively closing low-performing charter schools

• Focusing on turning around 12 to 15 underperforming schools.

“I don’t know that we collectively yet have a sense of what are the things we need to do differently,” Kelly Gonez said. “I think it’s important because change is disruptive. There’s a tension between acting fast and making long-term and lasting change.”

García said Wednesday that “it is exciting that the board is finally ready for some real change.”

Vivian Ekchian, intermediate superintendent, and board President Mónica García work on a mission statement together.

She said she is studying a plan approved by the board in 2000 to give local districts more autonomies in their hiring and allow more innovation in teaching. 

McKenna noted that “our biggest split is on the issue of charter schools, that is the elephant. Is it the belief that our role as board members is to primarily protect and monitor this district, or are we elected to serve all students no matter where they are and it’s OK that they go to the charter schools?”

Nick Melvoin, the board’s vice president, noted that parents in his district are often confused about the various models of schools in the district, and many parents have one child going to an independent charter and another attending a district school. They pick what is best for their child.

“That’s why I’m pushing for unified enrollment,” Melvoin said. “And maybe we should let charter schools do their thing and shrink our charter school division, and if they are not performing, shut them down.”

Charter schools are authorized by the district for five-year terms, and the charter division has an exhaustive oversight process that Melvoin would like to minimize. “We’re responsible for all kids and all families. And this board spends too much time on schools we don’t govern.”

García said her district has 61 charter schools, which opened to alleviate school overcrowding and have become the best solution for many parents. She said that those who have sought to maintain the status quo and an unwillingness to change by labor negotiators have kept some schools from succeeding.

After the meeting, García noted there were some tense moments during the frank discussion. “I am pleased with the board’s work and energy, and there was authentic dialogue which is always welcome. I feel like this tension we are experiencing is part of leading in Los Angeles. How do we address individual real angst and challenge the collective rules that we operate under?”

Read Next