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Quiet Coup at LAUSD TV

Three years after a bruising public fight over who would run the underperforming public-television channel operated by the L.A. school district, Superintendent Ruben Zacarias has authorized a quiet coup de station at KLCS Channel 58. Beginning this fall, Zacarias installed an obscure broadcasting consultant — and friend of a friend — as general manager, prompting some longtime station employees to cry cronyism, and leaving others merely scratching their heads in surprise.

There wasn’t so much as a round of job interviews before Zacarias had named former KCET engineering manager Tony Burke as the television station’s top administrator. In fact, Zacarias appointed Burke to a newly created position exempt from the civil-service, merit-system process used to select the previous station manager. The superintendent came to know Burke through contact with a mutual friend, someone with whom Zacarias has vacationed.

The TV-station episode offers a behind-the-curtains glimpse of Zacarias, a career LAUSD insider whose drive to turn around a struggling district has produced minimal results so far. For low-budget KLCS — the city’s number-two public-television station, behind powerhouse KCET — these happenings are the latest installment in a turbulent history — from allegations of inappropriate underwear purchases to under-the-table contracts — while programming and production languished.

"It’s a dinosaur sitting there," said one industry producer with ties to the station. "It’s been a dinosaur sitting there for years. And yet there’s so much that can be done. How much programming could you do that could be utilized in the classroom? How many school districts in this country have an operating TV station?"

When Zacarias turned his attention to the school district’s struggling television station, he had a built-in advantage. Here, in the nation’s number-two media market — not to mention the heart of Hollywood — he should have had no trouble finding experienced station managers and heavyweight broadcast experts to lend a hand.

The person he found was Burke, 56, who is introduced in the KLCS November program guide as "one of the country’s leading experts in television broadcasting and new-media development." More precisely, he spent 14 of the last 17 years at KCET, rising to the position of associate director of technical operations, where, in the words of his self-penned bio, "he was responsible for the operations of the broadcast facility and all West Coast production of national PBS programming."

According to a KCET spokeswoman, his job consisted of scheduling and maintaining engineering facilities. As a technical manager, his role was to make sure that production crews, for example, had the right equipment in the right places when they needed it. He was not involved in programming, producing or station management.

In an interview, Burke characterized his role this way: "I was in charge of all the facilities that prepare stuff for productions."

He lost his job in June 1995, during a round of funding cutbacks. When asked about his departure from KCET, Burke made no mention of a layoff, saying simply that "I just went on to greener pastures." The new opportunities, according to Burke, consisted of consulting work with a variety of clients nationwide, notably Sony’s Game Show Network cable channel, where he was part of a team that designed content for the Web-site companion to the game-show channel. Burke also worked as a programming consultant for a Fresno-area station operated by the local archdiocese.

While acknowledging the casual nature of his introduction to Burke, Zacarias defended the hire as simply spotting talent and bringing it on board. "That station has had problems for years, and I want to put an end to it," said Zacarias. "This district deserves better." He added: "I said to Burke, ‘You have carte blanche to do whatever it takes to straighten out the station.’"

Burke first spoke with the superintendent at a reception at Sony. Zacarias, who said he was impressed with Burke from the start, recalled that Burke mentioned they had a mutual friend, Rita Lepicier, a KLCS producer. Months later, when Zacarias turned his attention to the station, he asked Lepicier to put him in contact with Burke.

Said Burke, "I met him through Rita, and that’s how we started talking about things."

Lepicier, a former KCET colleague of Burke, has worked at KLCS for the last two and a half years. She was originally hired as a fund-raiser — a role that produced few dividends — then switched gears to organizing live call-in programs for parents and teens. It was through coordinating such shows with the Superintendent’s Office that she met Zacarias. The avowedly outspoken Lepicier, who is something of a lightning rod at the station, gets all the blame (or credit) among some staffers for Burke’s ascension.

In an interview, Lepicier insisted she had nothing to do with Burke’s hire and that her ties to Zacarias are almost solely professional. "I don’t have any contact with the man except when he comes over here to do a program," she said. As for reports that she and her husband have vacationed with Zacarias: "That is ludicrous. That doesn’t even merit a response so I won’t give it one."

In fact, Zacarias acknowledged that he, a friend, Lepicier and her husband were among a group of six that took a short trip, perhaps last year, to the Mexican resort of Cabo San Lucas. And beyond the professional connection, it turns out that Zacarias’ traveling companion and Lepicier had been good friends in high school.

Contacted later by a Weekly fact-checker, Lepicier offered that "I’ve been at a few places where [Zacarias] has vacationed, but I’ve never gone on vacation with him."

Whatever the case, Zacarias emphasized that friendship had nothing to do with his choice of Burke. "Everybody claims they’ve got an ‘in’ with me," said Zacarias. "There was no collusion, no influence."

Burke’s first mission, a two-month, $15,500 consulting job ending in July, was to evaluate the station from top to bottom. Station staff were told that their input would be confidential, and most cooperated fully.

A redacted version of the confidential 30-page report was finally released Tuesday, more than seven weeks after the Weekly requested it. The report is sharply critical of management. "KLCS-TV is a station in crisis," Burke wrote. "There is a lack of leadership, vision and direction, and a disregard for fiscal responsibility." The station’s image "ranges from nonexistent to poor, both internally and externally." He added, "What is needed is a vision and a leader who will motivate, communicate, and create new avenues and revenues."

Burke proposed a new general-manager position to fill the gap, and in short order Zacarias was offering him the job. Zacarias said he had been certain all along that he wanted an outside expert in the position, and that he had wanted to avoid the public flap that had attended the last effort to hire a station administrator.

Previous top administrator Tom Mossman got the job in 1996, after the school board turned against the better-known John Lippman, who was favored by senior district staff, including Zacarias. Lippman, as KCBS Channel 2’s news director, had helped inaugurate so-called trash TV news in Los Angeles.

Aside from his history at Channel 2, Lippman took a drubbing from activists who pushed for a Latino or Spanish-speaking station director. In that contentious climate, Mossman, a minority (Pacific Islander) and also a top-rated applicant, became the safe choice. For Mossman, it was his second tour of duty; he’d also been KLCS station manager from 1979 to 1987.

Mossman, who was not allowed to see Burke’s report, kept his title under the new regime, but has been shunted off to the Siberian quadrant of the org chart, with no one reporting to him. His civil-service due process protects him from outright dismissal. He declined to be interviewed for this article, referring questions to senior district administrators.

To make the Burke hire happen fast — and to bypass the district’s civil-service procedures — Zacarias designated the job as a special senior-management post, which gave Zacarias authority to hire anyone he wanted, pending school-board approval. State law permits Zacarias 10 such senior-management positions. The other designees include the district’s top three business and operations administrators. Burke’s salary is $105,183 — the same pay as an experienced assistant superintendent.

No criticism à la the Lippman episode has come from Latino activists over the hiring of Burke. Lippman, by the way, is apparently thriving as the director of news operations for Unavision, nation’s largest Spanish-language network.

All told, in six weeks Burke had evolved from station consultant to boss. Said one unnerved employee: "Now he knew about everyone’s feelings on everything. It was like your psychiatrist becoming your judge."

Controversial doings at the station go back at least as far as the early 1990s, when KLCS was run by Patricia Marshall, the sister of the head school-district lobbyist (and now deputy superintendent), Ron Prescott. At one point, records show, the school district looked into allegations that Marshall was running the station like a loosely organized fiefdom, sending out employees on personal errands, such as the purchase of a girdle.

Marshall dismissed such allegations as ridiculous, but also informally brought in famed attorney Johnny Cochran Jr., a personal friend, to talk over the matter with district officials. No action was taken against Marshall, although auditors uncovered hiring and overtime irregularities, violations that a district lawyer characterized as "misfeasance rather than malfeasance."

Marshall retired in 1994, but not before assigning her assistant and protégé, Sabrina Thomas, to run the station on an interim basis. Marshall also increased Thomas’ salary by more than $20,000 per year through a side contract. District auditors later concluded that the pay increase violated district policy because, under the arrangement, Thomas was being paid as an employee and an independent contractor at the same time.

Thomas’ new role created another problem: She was now supervising her husband, Lowell, who was managing the station payroll and thus in charge of his wife’s time cards. Neither Thomas was ever judged to have abused the setup, but Thomas lost her promotion after senior officials questioned her contract.

Sabrina Thomas continues to work at the station, where her job is to schedule programs. But Lowell Thomas lost his job when his position was reclassified. He sued over the matter, settling with the district last month for an undisclosed sum.

After Marshall’s departure, the station languished for two years without a manager, while also sustaining funding and staff cutbacks; it’s still operating with a smaller crew than in 1975. At one point, district officials debated shutting it down entirely to save money, or handing it over to KCET to manage.

In that period, a then-confidential station review by district media specialist Brad Sales noted that "KLCS feels very much like an organization in decline and disarray. To the staff, the future appears uncertain, and there is a lack of clear vision with regard to the station’s mission. In addition, allegations are being made concerning self-dealing, nepotism and racial discrimination. While many staff continue to work very hard due to being short-handed, there are feelings by some that others are getting a ‘free ride.’"

Although Sales was speaking only about the television station, he could have been talking, allegorically, about the entire school system. Indeed, the doings at KLCS could always be read as a microcosm of LAUSD as a whole.

Likewise, it’s hard to resist viewing Superintendent Zacarias, who rose to the top job in July 1997, through the prism of KLCS. His hiring of Burke certainly displayed his independence — advisers had warned him that he might take heat for a seemingly rash hire. The same stubborn streak showed up at times in his dealings with the local business leaders steering the LEARN reform program. They apparently concluded that Zacarias would not do their bidding — or that he was not up to the job — and have thrown in with Mayor Richard Riordan’s push to unseat the school board that hired Zacarias. The Burke appointment is also evidence of an administrator who sometimes chafes at bureaucratic restrictions to fast change, while also demonstrating that Zacarias can work the system when he wants to.

At KLCS, Burke is pushing programming ideas and technical goals that are remarkably similar to those championed — if not always realized — by the displaced Mossman. Station progress, however, is on fast-forward now, vows Burke. In the past, he said, the school system "had people running the station not as business people but as educators. I’m structuring this as a business, as a television station. We are going to be totally accountable for every nickel."


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