The search committee for a new superintendent of Los Angeles Unified promised to look far and wide for the most qualified candidate to lead the nation’s second-largest school district. But in the end, the LAUSD school board decided to hire from within, choosing longtime deputy superintendent Michelle King to oversee more than 1,000 schools.

At a press conference announcing the appointment, board president Steve Zimmer invoked the Beatles, saying, “To quote Lennon and McCartney, we didn’t know the long and winding road would lead us to our own door when we started. And it was the right road, and it was the right door.”

Yet to those who see L.A. Unified as a troubled morass, squeezed by low student achievement on one hand and a dismal financial outlook on the other, King is something of a blank canvas.

Unlike some past LAUSD superintendents who were outspoken about their agendas even before taking the job, King has been vague when it comes to her beliefs — about everything from test scores to technology in the classroom. Insiders who have worked with her, and who would rather not be quoted saying anything negative about her, describe King as an almost sphinxlike figure.

If former superintendent John Deasy was a tempest, King was the calm, silent operator. She was an effective implementer of other people’s ideas.

But what about her own ideas?

When King was asked, at the press conference, what her vision for the schools was, she replied with platitudes:

“What I want to see happen for the youth in Los Angeles is that we’re able to build on what we’ve started and broaden and expand it. I see us being able to expand opportunities for our youth.” And so on.

“I don’t know Michelle King,” says former state Sen. Gloria Romero, an outspoken advocate for change in the public schools, who now heads the California Center for Parent Empowerment. “The concern I do have is, she’s made her career by basically playing along. We still have real failure in the district. I think it will be same-old, same-old.”

But many parents and teachers are happy that an educator and native Angeleno is leading the school district, after years of iconoclastic nonlocals including Deasy, a New Englander; Ramon Cortines, who came from San Francisco; and David Brewer, a former Navy admiral from Virginia.

“One of the things I was excited about was how much people wanted an educator to be the leader of LAUSD,” says school board member Monica Ratliff, herself a former LAUSD teacher. “They wanted a teacher, a principal. They wanted someone who knew L.A.”

King is the first woman since 1929 to run L.A. Unified, and the first-ever African-American woman. Perhaps even more impressive is her personal story: a graduate of LAUSD, a single mother of three daughters who graduated from LAUSD, an LAUSD teacher for 10 years, a principal for three years.

Ever since she was promoted to assistant superintendent in 2005, King has worked inside the school district’s massive, cubelike headquarters, which sits high atop a hill overlooking the 110 freeway in downtown Los Angeles.

There, King quietly made her way up through the district bureaucracy. She was promoted to local district superintendent in 2008, to superintendent chief of staff in 2010, and to deputy superintendent in 2011, serving under both Cortines and Deasy, both of whom have rather outsized personalities.

Monica Garcia, LAUSD’s longest-serving board member, praises King as “politically astute, in the sense that she was a loyal No. 2 in two very different administrations.”

But there’s a formidable gap between being No. 2 and being No. 1 in a school district like L.A. Unified, beset with a host of problems, not least of which is its rapidly declining enrollment. The district has lost about 200,000 kids in the last two decades, though it retains its geographic sprawl.

“You’ve got size, you’ve got politics, you’ve got financials,” explains former LAUSD chief operating officer Matt Hill, now the superintendent of Burbank Unified. “L.A. Unified is a beast. There’s very few people in the country that can do that job.”

Today, Los Angeles Unified is in the eye of a very large storm.

In 2012, LAUSD was forced to cut $390 million from its budget, as the full weight of the Great Recession finally hit state funding of public education. The school year was shortened by 10 days. Adult education, deeply popular in a city of immigrant adults, was decimated. So was arts education. Thousands of LAUSD employees were laid off.

Credit: Photo by Ted Soqui

Credit: Photo by Ted Soqui

To address the crisis hitting schools statewide, Gov. Jerry Brown convinced voters in November 2012 to pass a temporary sales tax increase. The next year, Brown radically changed the way the state provides money to local school districts, giving districts with a large number of low-income families and English-language learners a bigger piece of the pie — a huge windfall for LAUSD.

LAUSD’s budget ballooned to $7.8 billion, $1.8 billion more than the dark days of 2012.

But things are about to get a whole lot worse than during the recession. Soon.

First, that temporary statewide sales tax increase that voters approved expires at the end of this year, although proponents of a ballot initiative to make the sales tax hike permanent are gathering signatures. Brown, however, had promised Californians it was a “temporary” tax, a promise widely seen as helping assure its passage — and nobody knows if voters are still feeling generous.

But LAUSD’s more profound problem isn’t that of persuading California taxpayers to pay permanent higher taxes. The bigger problem is its customers — the children.

While the city of Los Angeles and its surrounding county continue to grow slowly, the population of children is actually falling. There are fewer of them in L.A. every year.

It’s an odd problem to have, especially for someone like Michelle King, who worked for the district through the 1980s and ’90s, when enrollment was skyrocketing by tens of thousands of students every year.

Overcrowding was a crisis in Los Angeles. Kids were crammed into classrooms. Teachers were hired by the dozens. Many schools moved to year-round schedules to accommodate the throngs. California voters passed a series of bond measures to build new schools.

Then a funny thing happened. Just as the yellow ribbons on those new campuses were being cut, student enrollment began to decline. At its peak in 2002, LAUSD educated nearly 750,000 kids. Today, that number is well under 550,000, and shrinking.

About half of the loss of children is due to a veritable exodus of all kinds of families to independent charter schools, which educate around 100,000 kids within LAUSD borders, nearly one in six children in the district.

Just as significant is L.A.’s declining birthrate. According to the L.A. County Department of Health, the child population in the county has fallen nearly 17 percent since 2000, when L.A. County population growth outpaced that of the state and the nation.

Los Angeles County is no longer a hotbed of population growth — nor is the city. Today, L.A. County’s growth rate lags both the state and the nation.

And that means that just over the horizon, LAUSD faces a fiscal crisis that could very well make the 2012 budget cuts look like a neat trim.

That’s because children equal money — school districts are funded by taxpayers based on student head counts. Fewer kids means less money to run a vast enterprise that, itself, has not gone on much of a diet in response to the dwindling head counts.

Former superintendent Cortines asked an independent financial review panel to explain how bad things were going to get. By 2018-19, the panel said, the deficit would balloon to $450 million, worse than during the recession. It would explode to $600 million in 2019-20.

Given these massive shortfalls, even if voters agree to make the Proposition 30 sales tax hike permanent, those funds will make little more than a dent here. L.A. is still in deep trouble.

In its stern report, the review panel warned that if LAUSD’s leadership doesn’t get its house in order, the state of California could use its powers to take over governance of the district — a move normally reserved for exceedingly poorly run districts that have lost the public trust.

Such a move by the state would give not just the schools but the city itself a nationwide black eye.

“If the district desires to continue as a growing concern … capable of improving the lives of students and their families, then a combination of difficult, substantial and immediate decisions will be required,” the panel warned. “Failure to do so could lead to the insolvency of the LAUSD, and the loss of local governance authority that comes from state takeover.”

Michael Fine, chief administrative officer for the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, who served on the panel, says there is still time to fix things. LAUSD is “not in crisis at this point. It can balance its budget for the next few years. But if they ignore everything, crisis is a few years away.”

Among the panel’s recommendations: buying out the contracts of longtime teachers, increasing student attendance and cutting health care and pension benefits of district employees.

It’s unclear how much weight those suggestions will be given by the school board — or by King.

When asked about the panel’s recommendations, King seemed noncommittal, even indecisive, despite having seen the report when it came out three months ago.

“I currently have a team of leaders combing through the recommendations for feasibility and etc.,” she tells L.A. Weekly. “I don’t have an answer to that question at this point. Do we need to address declining enrollment? Certainly.”

Ref Rodriguez, one of the most recently elected of the school board members, recalls being surprised at the number of applicants for the superintendent job when word went out that LAUSD was looking.

He thought there’d be more.

“I actually thought we were gonna have a deep bench of great candidates,” says Rodriguez, a former charter-school operator known for his success in educating children in working-class areas. “I thought we’d be going through a list of 150 résumés. I knew pretty early on, once we received the first batch of candidates — ‘Oh, this is really shallow water.’”

Perhaps candidates were put off by the somewhat precarious political realities of the superintendent, who serves at the pleasure of the seven-member school board, who themselves are elected by the public.

Since the public’s perception of LAUSD is fairly dismal, board members these days find it relatively difficult to get re-elected. That means the political makeup of the board is always in flux — only three of the seven current board members have served a full term.

Credit: Photo by Ted Soqui

Credit: Photo by Ted Soqui

And education politics are famously polarized, pitting the teachers union and its allies versus the so-called school reformers, who are pushing for more charter schools and greater teacher accountability.

A number of education leaders and big-city superintendents declined to be considered for the LAUSD job, including San Francisco superintendent Richard Carranza. Rumor has it that Carranza only wanted it if he got the support of all seven board members.

Unanimity also was important to board president Steve Zimmer, who was at pains to stress the fact that the balkanized school board had come together to unanimously hire King. Indeed, there are indications that the board is, if not entirely on the same page, far less polarized than it has been in recent years.

“We’re willing to listen to one another,” Rodriguez says, “and even open enough to say, ‘I see it differently now.’ I’ll tell you, those words did come out of board members during this selection process.”

King was, by many accounts, a compromise. There were four votes for a few different candidates, but no candidate initially satisfied Zimmer’s wish for board unanimity.

Consensus began to slowly coalesce around King, in part because they all knew and respected her, and in part because of her apparent ideological flexibility, according to those familiar with the search process. . She is, after all, an administrator, not a politician or policy wonk. She is above all an implementer, someone who knows who to call to get what fixed, someone who knows how to make changes, if not necessarily which changes to make.

“There’s no shortage of vision in LAUSD,” says Dr. David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education. “In fact, there are two competing visions for what the future of the district looks like.”

As Plank explains, “The board avoided setting up a contest between those two visions. What the appointment of King suggests is that for a time, at least, she has some space to address the bureaucratic problems, the system problems, and leave the arguments about vision to the board.”

School board member Ratliff resists that analysis, saying, “Whoever the superintendent was going to be, we were going to have a strong role in getting the policy and vision. You know this board likes to set the policy.”

“I am a collaborator,” King explains. “And I see the school board and myself working in a partnership. We’re really developing and working together on a common, shared vision. In no way do I see that they’re handing down something and I execute. Quite the opposite.”

Scott Schmerelson, elected to the school board last year, had one question for every superintendent candidate: “Have you ever been a member in the Broad Academy?”

That’s billionaire Eli Broad’s superintendent academy, from which John Deasy both graduated and where he now works. It’s a supposedly non-ideological center that trains educators in many of the fundamentals of how to manage school districts.

“That was my first question,” says Schmerelson, a former teacher who opposes the pro–charter school ethos embraced by Broad. If the answer to his question was ‘yes,’ he says, “They were eliminated, in my mind, as a candidate for the district.

“Maybe I’m not being a logical fellow,” he adds. “But in my way of thinking, they have a certain mentality. Students are considered market shares rather than students. I can’t risk it. ’Cause I don’t trust them. I’m being very honest with you.”

Broad has long been a financial backer of charter schools and school-reform candidates, and his foundation is one of the main financial backers of an effort to expand the number of charter schools in Los Angeles. That plan, leaked to the Los Angeles Times in August, is considered by Schmerelson and Zimmer to be a declaration of war against L.A. Unified.

The newly created nonprofit behind the charter-expansion plan, Great Public Schools Now, has been scrambling to soften its image and scale back its agenda. The nonprofit’s leaders now say that, in addition to funding new charter schools, they’ll work with the school board to open magnet schools and pilot schools.

But that didn’t stop the school board from voting, on King’s first day on the job as superintendent, to oppose the Great Public Schools Now plan — a largely symbolic vote, to be sure, but a signal of intent.

“I think it is certainly, for the school board, a convenient rallying cry to suggest what they want to do is come up with their own solutions,” says Great Public School Now’s new executive director, Myrna Castrejón.

Since the school board can’t do anything about Los Angeles’ declining birth rate, it has decided that its survival hinges on competing against the charter schools. That would entail, in part, giving L.A. schools greater autonomy.

But for some board members, it also means trying to stop the spread of charter schools.

All new charter schools must be approved by the school board. According to the California Charter School Association, in fiscal year 2013-14, the LAUSD School Board rejected just two of 19 new charter school applications.

The next year, the school board rejected three out of 14 efforts to form charter schools. But during the current fiscal year, the school board has rejected six out of 14 new charters, more than in the previous two years combined — and the fiscal year is only half over.

“We are losing students to charters,” Schmerelson says. “And in order to maintain the education for all kids, you have to have them come back” to LAUSD.

But if the seven-member school board has a plan for winning back Los Angeles–area parents who are increasingly switching their children to charter schools, it’s keeping that plan very close to the vest.

“Either we keep doing what we’re doing, which is blaming charter schools as the reason for declining enrollment, or we really roll up our sleeves and figure it out,” Rodriguez concedes.

Which is why some are wondering if maybe the board should have chosen more of a visionary than Michelle King.

“The exodus to charter schools is the biggest indicator that parents have lost faith in the district,” says Nicholas Melvoin, a former LAUSD teacher, who’s now a lawyer and school reform advocate. For the school board to value unanimity in making decisions, he says, “doesn’t mean anything. I’d rather have 4-to-3 board votes — and know that the district is innovating.”

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