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Next up for LA Unified board: the search for a successor to Cortines

Vanessa Romo | July 2, 2015

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ramon cortines

LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines gets emotional at the July 1 school board meeting.

With a recently balanced $7.8 billion budget in place, two new board members sworn in and Steve Zimmer elected as the new president, the LA Unified board is turning to the hiring of a superintendent to follow Ramon Cortines as, perhaps, its highest priority.

The pronouncement to start the search was among the first orders of business for Zimmer as he won a unanimous vote yesterday to succeed Richard Vladovic. But it opened the door to a host of questions about how he and the board plan to move forward.

Will the district go the traditional route and hire a headhunting firm? Will it be another behind closed doors decision, like drafting Cortines out of retirement after John Deasy stepped down, a deal that was made with zero public discussion?

Or the board look outside to find another big city superintendent, like Richard A. Carranza of San Francisco Unified? Or will it be an internal hire, elevating a senior district official, such as Ruth Perez, Superintendent of Instruction and Curriculum; Michelle King, Chief Deputy Superintendent, or Thelma Melendez, who was recently promoted as Chief Executive Officer of Educational Services by Cortines?

And for all the talk of transparency and community engagement, much of it by Zimmer and his new vice president, George McKenna, it is still unclear how the public is expected to participate. Nearly all the board members emphasized their desire to consider the views of parents, teachers and students, but they left those and other details of the search process to a future meeting.

Only two things are clear at this point: The first is that this board looooooves Cortines and members would most prefer a Cortines 2.0. During a round robin of compliments at yesterday’s meeting to pick a president, McKenna suggested cloning him.

“Ray Cortines pulled us together in our darkest times,” McKenna said. “We owe him a lot.”

Zimmer said so many nice things about Cortines and the work he’s done over the past nine months, that it moved Cortines to tears.

Vladovic, whose two years as board ended yesterday, told a story about getting a call from Cortines at 6 a.m. to help solve a problem.

“He pushes us hard, and that’s good,” Vladovic said. “That’s the kind of leader we need.”

The second point of certainty is that Cortines will have a hand in selecting his successor.

“We have the opportunity to call upon his expertise,” Zimmer told LA School Report. “I’m going to make sure he’s in the room to get his guidance and counsel,” he added.

The timing of all this, too, remained unclear yesterday. It appeared, however, that the speed of hiring a new superintendent — more than the calendar —  is likely to have a greater bearing on how long Cortines remains on the job. While Cortines signed a contract extension to keep him in place through June 30, 2016, he has the right to leave whenever he wants.

In public statements, he has so far suggested he might remain in place only until December. Before yesterday’s meeting, he was asked by LA School Report to be more specific about how long he intended to stay in the job.

“Oh, probably just two more weeks,” he said, joking.

No really, how long?

He pointed to the horseshoe of seats where he and the board sits during meetings.

“Look, as long as you see me up there, I will be here,” he said. “They need to find someone.”

* Mike Szymanski contributed reporting to this story.

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