Los Angeles seems on a collision course with itself this week. The chaos that has long characterized the school district — amply attested to by its inability to get textbooks to students and new campuses built — has now reached its topmost rungs. The board has anointed a new de facto superintendent while nonetheless leaving the old one in place, a figurehead responsible for absolutely nothing. Administrators are essentially being asked to choose up sides. And a city where interracial understanding is often measured in thimblefuls is rumbling ominously.
When Genethia Hayes, Mike Lansing and Caprice Young, with Mayor Riordan’s backing, ousted three school-board incumbents this past spring, there was a good deal to be hopeful about. Their victories were a clear mandate to shake up the district — which, under the stewardship of Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, had instituted a number of pedagogical reforms, but had also failed repeatedly to get the necessary materials to its students, or to discharge dysfunctional administrators like the principal of Fremont High, or to embark on the construction of the hundred new schools required to keep the district from choking on its own growth Above all, a culture of unaccountability had pervaded LAUSD: No one, from Zacarias on down, took responsibility for the Belmont debacle or the myriad smaller fiascoes that characterize district life.
From the outset, the new board members faced a daunting challenge. The lame-duck board, three of whose members they had defeated, gratuitously extended Zacarias’ contract before they left office just to spite the incoming trio. Nonetheless, the three got off to a good start by persuading their colleagues to launch an investigation into the Belmont disaster and to appoint Howard Miller, a real estate attorney who’d served on the board in the ‘70s, to oversee the search for sites and construction of new schools. Then, they suddenly lost their senses.
After persuading Valerie Fields — the crucial fourth vote on a seven-member board — that Zacarias should be placed in an isolation booth, they decided in a closed-door meeting to make Miller the district’s de facto czar, and reduce Zacarias to a hood ornament.
We share the board majority’s exasperation with Zacarias and the ancien regime. We do not share their unshakable belief that Miller is the man to run the schools, that a decision of such magnitude can be taken in this kind of banana-republic manner, or that their two-headed solution is remotely workable. Miller is a stranger to the political complexities of the city he is now charged with guiding. Board president Genethia Hayes, like her sponsor the mayor, has an admirable can-do spirit, but like Riordan — whose credo, “It is better to seek forgiveness than permission” describes this whole operation to a tee — she seems to have forgotten that a government cannot be effective if its decisions are not seen as democratic or legitimate.
Much less if its decisions are depicted as racist or anti-Latino, which State Senator Richard Polanco — in his customary demagogic style — has been only too eager to do. We’re certain that the board majority had the interests of the district’s students — 70 percent of them Latino — uppermost in mind when they engineered their switcheroo, though we’re dumbfounded that they thought it would be perceived that way by much of the Latino community. Even without Polanco’s mischief, Zacarias has a political following in Latino L.A., and humiliating him with a closed-door fiat has only made it that much more difficult for the board to begin its real work of restructuring. You do not instill a culture of accountability by anointing a new ruler with all the democratic input of a corporate boardroom coup.
How, in these difficult straits, should the board try to move toward democratically-agreed-upon change? First, let Howard Miller exercise his considerable talents in the job to which he was initially assigned: facilities czar. Second, try to mediate a deal with Zacarias which allows him a dignified exit and the district a smoother transition, which would include a legitimate search process for a legitimate successor. This lacks the instant gratification of cutting the Gordian knot, we know, but democratic politics isn’t about Gordian knots. Message to board members Hayes, Fields, Lansing and Young — and to our mayor as well: You either make change with the consent of the governed, or be prepared not to make it at all.