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And in that other Orange County, in Florida, is Superintendent Dennis Smith, who once headed Irvine’s school district. Smith has received accolades for decentralizing Orlando’s school system, giving campuses greater autonomy under regional superintendents, a motif directly in keeping with the Cortines plan.
A more unusual possibility is Adam Urbanski, the head of the teachers union in Rochester, New York. Urbanski, a frequent visitor to Los Angeles, has embraced accountability measures that other union leaders opposed. He’s well-regarded among both local educators and civic power brokers.
From the college ranks, there was Piedad Robertson, a former secretary of education in Massachusetts and the current president of Santa Monica College, the first woman and the first Latina to head that school.
Two notable Latino contenders, George Garcia of Tucson and Fresno’s Carlos Garcia, have just taken jobs with other school systems, underscoring the heated competition. And an L.A. invitation to short list favorite Rod Paige prompted a countermove by Houston school-board members, who raised Paige’s salary 26 percent last week to $275,000.
Besides Romer and Cisneros, the non-educators under consideration were thought to include four-star general and Rhodes scholar Wes Clark, who led the NATO campaign against Serbia and was described by writer Gabriel García Márquez as “a soldier who dreams of being a man of letters.”
Another possibility was George Munoz, a onetime president of the Chicago Board of Education who served Clinton as both a Treasury official and as the well-regarded head of the Overseas Private Investment Corp., a federal agency that sells American companies insurance against political risks overseas.
A local favorite is Liam McGee, who looks increasingly like the Bill Siart of the year 2000. In 1997, Siart, a civic-minded banking executive eager to dive into education reform, finished as runner-up to Zacarias.
McGee, also a career banker, leads the Southern California operation for Bank of America. He achieved some notoriety in 1993 when the San Francisco Chronicle “credited” him with a plan to cut overhead by reducing the working hours and benefits of employees. More recently, he was one of the bank officials lucky enough to be quoted defending the ATM fees charged to noncustomers.
On the civic side, McGee has long served on a variety of public-interest boards. And he presumably played a part in directing his bank’s charitable contributions toward literacy efforts. Both he and Cisneros volunteered late last year for a committee set up to restructure the school district’s financial operations.
None of the candidates, other than Romer, has campaigned for the job, and strikingly, not a single touted contender comes from the ranks of current district administrators, the same crowd that used to have a near lock on the top spot.
In an earlier era, the presumed successors would be headlined by Deputy Superintendent Ron Prescott, who directs the district’s lobbying operation, and Deputy Superintendent Lilliam Castillo, who oversees instructional services. Castillo was the Latino heir apparent to the Zacarias legacy, whereas Prescott is the consummate smooth insider, who would have given African-Americans their “turn” at the top spot. These days, Castillo is in jeopardy of losing her current job, and Prescott is contemplating retirement.
The only inside candidate with even an outside chance is Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller, who is not really an insider at all, but a real estate attorney who swooped in last fall to organize business operations, and later helped the school-board majority bump Zacarias to the sidelines. And while outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan is apparently not a candidate, a close mayoral confidant is playing an important role in the selection process. Business magnate and philanthropist Eli Broad, who is even wealthier than Riordan, barely made it onto the school-board-nominated screening committee. But once installed, district sources report, he took the responsibility to heart, jetting across the country and all over town soliciting applicants.
Broad’s office declined to comment on these accounts, but school-board member Victoria Castro said that she was recently approached at a Washington education conference by officials who’d talked to Broad. She declined to name the officials, but expressed discomfort with Broad’s recruiting — because a search firm had been hired for that purpose and because Broad also would have the task of evaluating the recruits. “If he had not been part of the screening committee,” said Castro, “I would have no problem with him traveling and encouraging people to apply.”
Broad’s involvement with education is beginning to reach Mayor Riordan’s level. Broad contributed $250,000 to Riordan’s hand-picked candidates in last year’s school-board elections, the most expensive in the nation’s history. And the Broad family has pledged $100 million to the recently formed Broad Foundation, which supports education-reform efforts. The foundation is considering Cortines’ request to fund management training for the 11 minidistrict superintendents. Ultimately, it’s hard to imagine that the next schools chief could get the job without a thumbs up from either Broad or Riordan, through their ability to influence some members of either the screening committee or of the school board. Cortines himself, a former New York City and Pasadena superintendent, was well-known and well-regarded in Riordan’s circle when he was asked to take the helm of L.A.’s schools.