By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
For exactly one day, the school-reform plan of L.A. schools Superintendent Ruben Zacarias was the hottest story in town, drawing a horde of TV cameras and an above-the-fold headline in the L.A. Times.
This was the reform vision of the city’s top educator, a man with more than 30 years in the school system. And beyond that, the plan also was a bold stroke aimed at tipping the scales in Zacarias‘ dramatic struggles with a hostile school-board majority.
The plan calls for dividing L.A. Unified into 12 administrative regions, touts the efficiencies of private-sector practices, and makes it clear that Zacarias -- as the superintendent -- would call the shots in managing the nation’s second largest school district.
Yet after its high-intensity debut, the Zacarias plan became a seeming mirage, vanishing as rapidly as the career of the man who proposed it. And though it was the desperate measure of a man trying to hang on to his job, the plan also was an inside perspective on how to turn the district around, from someone in a good position to know what he‘s talking about.
Reorganization was never simply a parlor trick that a self-interested Zacarias pulled from his sleeve. He and many others inside and outside of district headquarters talk about reorganization as if it were a magic elixir. It’s the very reason why Howard Miller, a real estate attorney, was drafted into upper management as chief operating officer. And it‘s also a major task for Ramon C. Cortines, named last week to advise Zacarias, and, as of January 16, to replace him on an interim basis. Cortines, in an interview, immediately stated that a revamped, streamlined bureaucracy is a top priority, and perhaps the only hope.
As board member Caprice Young put it: “We expect in the coming weeks to see one auditor’s report after another identifying major problems in every operating division of the district. We face a massive challenge to build facilities, because schools are overcrowded. Existing schools are filled with asbestos; two high schools were closed down today. School-bond construction projects are behind schedule. We have consistent problems with the budget and the budget process. And at the same time we are starting a new districtwide reading program and ending social promotion.”
Challenging times indeed for a school system that has trouble cleaning bathrooms and getting textbooks into the hands of students. Zacarias -- after spending a career as a cog in this flailing bureaucracy -- wanted to take part in a cure, and was certain he had something valuable to say on the matter. It was hard, however, to find anyone taking him seriously with his district career on life support.
“There has never been a discussion about Ruben‘s plan at any time after he introduced it,” said board member Julie Korenstein, a Zacarias supporter. “His authority had already been taken away. The board majority was clearly not very interested in hearing from someone who was not going to be there.”
In the end, the Zacarias plan never got beyond a thin set of 31 slides for his PowerPoint presentation to the press. But it still shows the serious thinking of a district insider who wanted so badly to steer the district through a turbulent reform process, and its fate speaks volumes about the struggle between Zacarias and the board.
First word of a Zacarias reform plan filtered into the media on Monday, October 18, less than a week after board members, by the narrowest of margins, stripped Zacarias of authority by ordering him to cease direct supervision of all senior administrators. Instead, Zacarias would deal only with real estate attorney Howard Miller, who, in turn, would run day-to-day operations. Board members insisted that the change was needed to right a listing bureaucracy, and that Zacarias, freed of this burden, could achieve his true calling as a “visionary” on matters related to instruction.
Zacarias, though caught by surprise, immediately had enough vision to recognize a palace coup in progress. Backed by a broad, mostly Latino coalition of politicians and activists, he resisted the board’s move, questioning its legality. But he knew too that, sooner or later, if four of the seven board members wanted him out, he would be gone. He portrayed his reform scheme as a curative balm to the conflict: “In an effort to heal the wounds of the past, I plan to announce my plan for reorganization next week after presenting it to the school board, which -- despite my differences -- should be involved in the reorganization process.”
What this plan would contain was a genuine mystery to everyone except Zacarias. And part of that was intentional, explained his lawyer Joseph F. Coyne Jr., who worked closely with Zacarias in recent weeks. “We tried to keep a lot of people out of it,” said Coyne. “We didn‘t want to create factions, and we wanted people to be able to say legitimately they were on the sidelines.” Because the board had directed everyone to report to Miller, working closely with Zacarias could be interpreted as defiance, and Zacarias had no desire to bring grief to people loyally assisting him.
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