By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Broad recalled that he thought Cisneros was won over until Cisneros called back late that night and declined once and for all.
Cisneros, 53, said he turned down the offer because of long-range plans to return to his hometown, San Antonio, where much of his family lives, including his elderly father. L.A. Unified, he said, deserved a commitment of at least half a dozen years. “This was much bigger than a job decision for me,” he said. “It was kind of a life decision.”
With Cisneros dropping out, two finalists remained: Romer and George Munoz, a well-regarded Clinton administration official who‘d served four years on the Chicago Board of Education. Some board members seemed ready to pick Romer after meeting with him for two and a half hours on Thursday, June 1. These included Valerie Fields, Julie Korenstein and board president Genethia Hayes, who was pushing the board to reach a decision. They all knew that well-liked Interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines planned to leave by July 1.
Castro and board member David Tokofsky, who are political enemies historically, joined forces to protest the haste. Castro stormed from the room a couple of times, bartering a slowdown of the process as a condition for her return. All the while, the search firm scrambled for additional contenders.
One of these was John Murphy, a former superintendent from Charlotte, North Carolina, who impressed Tokofsky. But there was stronger support for Munoz, who had become the favorite of Castro. Then, late in the game, a Florida administrator, Carmen Varela-Russo, emerged from the middle of the pack.
By Monday, June 5, the day before Romer was named, it was between Romer, Munoz and Varela-Russo, whose name was kept confidential because she also was interviewing elsewhere. Board members were impressed with Munoz’s intellect and appreciated his Latino heritage and Spanish-language skills. His relative youth -- he‘s in his late 40s -- also offered a clear alternative to Romer. But some were not convinced that he’d absorbed the necessary expertise from his stint as an appointed school-board member in Chicago. They also noted teacher unrest during that period in Chicago, for which Romer offered a striking counterpoint. As governor, Romer had personally intervened to calm labor unrest and avoid teacher strikes on two occasions.
That left Romer and Varela-Russo, 64, who was the associate superintendent for technology, strategic planning and accountability in Broward County, Florida, one of the nation‘s larger school districts, with 240,000 students. (L.A. Unified has 712,000 students.) Previously, in New York City, Varela-Russo worked her way up from teacher to superintendent of the Bronx schools, and then to chief executive of all high schools in New York City, the nation’s largest school district. She‘d been a finalist for several superintendent jobs.
Board members found her energetic, and some remarked on a level of detail and knowledge-from-experience in her responses that Romer, the non-educator, could not match. At the same time, one or two were initially put off by her in-your-face New York mien. Board member Caprice Young became her most vocal advocate, theorizing that Varela-Russo was the victim of a glass ceiling. Like Munoz, Varela-Russo is Latino and bilingual. Castro seemed as though she might join in supporting Varela-Russo. At least one board member didn’t feel as though Varela-Russo outshone administrators already working in the district.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 6, the momentum gathering for Romer persuaded the entire board to make the choice unanimous, to avoid any impression of rancor.
Varela-Russo made out okay too. This week, she got the top job in the Baltimore city school system.
Some cynics speculate that the fix was in for Romer almost from the start. They cite Broad‘s closeness to Riordan and board members’ consultations with attorney Bill Wardlaw, Riordan‘s political consigliere. Why was Romer the only available choice on the initial shortlist? Was the Cisneros gambit a feint toward an unavailable candidate? Was Varela-Russo the last finalist because it was easier for Romer to shine in that head-to-head comparison? Was board president Hayes rushing the decision, even given the pressing need to fill the job?
“The bottom line is, the rich won out,” said board member Victoria Castro. “It was about power and money.” She conceded that her belief is a combination of gut instinct and circumstantial evidence.
Board member Caprice Young sighed wearily at the suggestion. In the case of Riordan, for whom she once worked as an assistant deputy mayor, “He’s a mentor. I call him for advice or help. We agree on some things. We fight about other things.” She added that she sought input from any number of sources, including community groups.
In an interview, Riordan said that he lobbied for no candidates. He did check them out, however, when he learned their identity from his own contacts or from reporters.
And how did attorney Wardlaw react to the notion of a Riordan-led conspiracy to call the shots?: “L.A. Unified would be absolutely blessed with every moment of time and attention it gets from Eli Broad and Richard Riordan. They are two of the most talented people in the city, and the school district should want more of their attention, not less.”