For the first time in six years, the politicians on the L.A. Unified School District Board of Education, responsible for educating one in every 10 children in California, have chosen a new president, the inscrutable Richard Vladovic. After two years of dramatic changes in which reformist Superintendent John Deasy ended such practices as the "Dance of the Lemons" — the transferring of incompetent and abusive teachers to unsuspecting schools — Vladovic's presidency represents either (a) a move toward moderation or (b) the opening salvo of all-out war between Deasy and a clique of teachers union–backed board members.
Stunned onlookers watched breathlessly two weeks ago as the school board voted 5-2 to elect Vladovic. Vladovic voted for himself, joined by Bennett Kayser and Marguerite LaMotte, allies of the anti-Deasy and anti-reform United Teachers Los Angeles. The balance-tipping vote came from new board member Monica Ratliff, a teacher and political unknown. Then Steve Zimmer joined in.
That's led to jubilation among UTLA activists.
Vladovic says he doesn't belong to either camp — the unionistas or the outspoken reformers.
"You got to be careful about words like 'reform,' " insists Vladovic, who almost never grants media interviews. "Reform means something different to everybody," and he sees himself as "right in the middle."
Vladovic was chosen in 2007 to run on Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's school-reform slate with current board member Tamar Galatzan and now-departed member Yolie Flores. Those three helped pass the landmark "Public School Choice" resolution in 2009, which lets poor or failing schools switch to fresh governing models — such as highly independent charter schools or district pilot schools, which get great autonomy but must hire UTLA teachers.
In 2010, Flores, Galatzan and Vladovic helped hire John Deasy, the headstrong leader who is making history by pushing the nation's second-largest district through a whirlwind of unaccustomed change.
Gratified civic leaders see Deasy as transformational for Los Angeles as a city.
Under Deasy, student test scores and even graduation rates are moving steadily upward — a significant shift thought impossible in L.A. under disastrous past superintendents David Brewer, Ruben Zacarias and Sid Thompson.
But UTLA, the teachers union, loathes Deasy and attacks him every chance it gets.
Vladovic, though chosen by Villaraigosa to run for the board because of his reformist views, has since 2007 morphed into something of a wild card. At 68, he's gotten closer to the angry, flame-throwing Marguerite LaMotte and the frail, ill Bennett Kayser. LaMotte and Kayser bitterly oppose charter schools — and are older people of Vladovic's generation.
"Dr. Vladovic is old-school," says a school board insider. "He's old-school 'cause he's fucking old. All he wants is to feel like his voice is heard by a fellow peer."
Nobody knows what made Vladovic change. He's a notorious loner, eschewing networking events and the press. (He had never returned this reporter's phone call until a few days ago.)
"I usually don't talk to the L.A. Times or the Daily News," he says. "It sounds funny. I've got to learn that this is very political."
Some school district insiders speculate that Vladovic feels his 46 years as a teacher, principal, local superintendent of LAUSD, superintendent of West Covina School District and LAUSD board member should give his opinions more weight than the views of others.
Known affectionately to some as "Dr. V," he can be charming and avuncular, partial to words like "doggonit." His almost studied folksiness can mask an intense wonkishness about curriculum approaches and teacher-training methods, leading some to underestimate him.
But dismiss Vladovic and he's liable to blow his stack. His dark side is exemplified by his other nickname: "Dr. Death," used by those terrified of his bullying.
"A switch flips and he totally loses it," one lobbyist says.
In one oft-told tale, in 2007 he unleashed a tirade against fellow board member Marlene Canter — a soft-spoken reformer from the Westside, who drew UTLA's intense wrath for insisting upon assessing L.A.'s barely evaluated classroom teachers far more rigorously.
Dr. Death's haranguing reportedly brought the classy Canter close to tears.
One rowdy blogger wrote that Vladovic's tenure as West Covina superintendent was marked by "volcanic fits of rage."
"I have a weakness," Vladovic concedes, almost sheepishly. "I get too passionate." He adds, "I'm a blow-and-go person. After I say my piece, I move on to another issue. I don't hold grudges."
Those on the receiving end might. Days before Vladovic's elevation to the presidency, a story ran in the L.A. Daily News about harassment claims made against him by at least two employees. The timing of the story fueled speculation that it was leaked by Deasy, who refuses to comment.
In some ways, Vladovic and Deasy are two sides of the same coin. Both have great impatience with the resistant public schools both say they want to turn around. Both sometimes act like they're the smartest person in the room.
They've never gotten along. Tensions escalated when Vladovic went against Deasy to give the school board veto power over large grants Deasy wants to apply for — a new level of meddling in the supe's job — and blocked some multiyear contracts Deasy was about to sign to hire his own team, a slap in the face and, yes, more school board meddling.
Vladovic was close to Deasy's predecessor, Ramon Cortines but felt Deasy didn't respect him or respond to his staff fast enough. And Deasy is nothing like ex-Superintendent Roy Romer, who met board members at their homes to woo them. Romer was a popular reformer, but his methods slow and his progress incremental.
Deasy moves faster. He has won die-hard fans and made intense enemies by essentially saying: This is my agenda. Here are the results. If you don't like it, fire me.
Now, board reformers who back Deasy's agenda — such as giving schools more say over how they spend state funds — are in the minority. That's due in part to Vladovic's drift toward the center — and to a terrible decision by Villaraigosa to run his ex–body man for school board. That lightweight candidate badly lost to teacher Monica Ratliff, whose views of school reform are a mystery.
Deasy, architect of a policy that measures teacher effectiveness, in part, based on how well students do on math and reading tests, now faces an ambivalent school board, whose members didn't hire him.
The L.A. Times reported that Deasy told some civic leaders he would resign if Vladovic became board president. And multiple sources heard Vladovic promise weeks ago that as board president he'd try to fire Deasy.
"I'd prefer to not run out and search for a replacement right now," Vladovic insists to L.A. Weekly, half-jokingly. "Do I want him to stay? Yeah. I don't want it to be personal. This is business."
Some hold out hope that Vladovic will create a more moderate atmosphere.
Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Public Schools, says Vladovic was "instrumental" in converting the badly failing Locke High School into a charter school (Vladovic was Locke's principal in the 1980s).
"We shared a view of trying to find consensus — the 80 percent that everyone agrees on," Barr says. "Steve Zimmer has some of that in him, but sometimes he caves." By contrast, Barr says Vladovic "has the trust and respect of different sides."
Maybe the job will turn the reclusive, explosive Vladovic into a leader.
"There is a tremendous amount that comes in front of you every day," explains Marlene Canter, the former LAUSD board president whom Vladovic once bullied. "You have to be very grounded and look at each challenge unbiased."
Some of his enemies say his passion for improving schools is earnest. Others think he's what's wrong with public education.
Vladovic explains that, growing up poor in San Pedro, "Education saved my life. I could have been a longshoreman. I could've been a fireman. I could've been a lawyer — I passed the law exam. But I said no, my calling is education."
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