By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
However it falls out, the selection process will look remarkably different from the last time around. Zacarias, a career LAUSD insider, had to survive public forums that played out much like this year’s presidential primaries, in which favorites Gore and Bush stood before constituents, took on all comers, ran a campaign and risked a fall.
“Last time, there was perhaps an excess of activity,” said Maria Casillas, president of the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, a school-support organization. “We’ve gone from parading candidates publicly and having them face an audience of friendly and hostile questions to nothing.” She added, “It’s probably by design so that the process doesn’t become a popularity contest or a contest of wills between community groups.” During the previous selection process, bands of Zacaristas appeared at every public forum and made it clear that they would be satisfied with no one other than Zacarias, the Latino native son.
The forums drove Zacarias to make commitments by which he could later be measured, said Mike Roos, former head of the LEARN school-reform organization. “And arguably, that’s why his tenure didn’t last too long,” Roos said, “because he didn’t have the wiggle room that previous occupants of the office had enjoyed.”
Roos added, however, that he was not offended by the secretive screening process, because the old hierarchy of succession has been dismantled by Cortines and the new school board. “It had been a passing on of the baton that is reminiscent of how the Mormon Church picks its leader or how a utility company picks its chair,” he said. “If you survived long enough, you eventually got to the top.”
The new person doesn’t have to be another Ray Cortines; in fact, the new person won’t get the chance. Board members say they are committed to Cortines’ district reorganization and his reading reforms (which were inaugurated under Zacarias). Cortines also plans to settle on a math program before leaving town.
“We can’t have someone coming in with a reinvention of the school district,” said school-board member Valerie Fields. “We will have to say, ‘Are you comfortable with what we have set in place?’ We can’t put the district in turmoil again.”
If a new superintendent isn’t named well before July 1, Cortines said he’s prepared to appoint the 11 minidistrict superintendents and also fill the other top administrative posts. He has his work cut out for him. Indeed, the mainstays of the team bargaining with teachers — Cortines, Miller and district legal adviser Richard Sheehan — are all contracted only through June 30. And not one of them has served even a year with the school system — much the same as other key senior managers and consultants. (Sheehan, by the way, served for some time as Eli Broad’s attorney.)
Such newness and instability is both crippling and distracting. “Too many midlevel leaders are looking over their shoulders, typing up résumés, figuring out which job to apply for, at a time when they need 100 percent focus,” said Mark Slavkin, a former school-board member.
But the turnover could be a boon for a new superintendent in one important respect, noted Slavkin. “The new person must be given real latitude to assemble a team. That has been a chronic failing in the past, when board members made political deals among themselves. I don’t think any of the superintendents was ever given free rein to build the team he wanted.” It would be a mistake to tell the new superintendent that “we’ve already decided who will be running the district.”
On the other hand, said board member Fields, “You can’t have everybody walk out July 1. That would be a disaster.” A Cortines-assembled transition team is almost a necessity, Fields noted, adding, “I have to admit that I put my arm around his shoulders and said, ‘How about you, my dear?’ I’m sure he will not desert us.”
Said Cortines: “Do they kid me about staying on? They kid me all the time.”
Cortines, obviously, will be packing his bags with the romance of his good start still fresh in the air. With all the work ahead, however, his successor had better come prepared with a good reference for a domestic-conflict hot line.
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