L.A. Unified looked far and wide but found new superintendent Michelle King right at home
Jan 13, 2106 :: When the Los Angeles Board of Education began looking for an new superintendent last year, it vowed to aim high.
Officials eyed nationally known school leaders in Miami and San Francisco. They even talked about high-profile politicians like such as Obama Cabinet member Julian Castro and U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles).
Michelle King, the school district's second-in-command, was also a candidate but initially seemed a long shot. King had worked her entire career at the district, and just 15 months earlier, had been passed over to serve as a interim superintendent. There was a sense that King had risen as high as she would go, that if she wanted to become superintendent, it would be elsewhere.
But over the next few months, the dynamics changed. Some of the big names the LAUSD wanted demurred. Others looked less promising on close review.
And in the end, King impressed. Several sources close to the search said she persuaded school board members that she was more than a cautious career bureaucrat and could lead the troubled district.
King also emerged as an unlikely consensus candidate in a district mired by divisive issues such as charter school expansion, teacher evaluations and technology investment.
The powerful teachers' union believed it could work with her, as did charter school advocates — groups often at odds with each other.
With the school district facing so many problems, the board began the search process with a sense of urgency and history.
The last permanent superintendent, John Deasy, had resigned under pressure in October 2014 amid clashes with board members and technology debacles, including an aborted $1.3-billion effort to provide iPads to every student.
Ramon C. Cortines then returned from retirement but made it clear he was willing to serve only through December.
Board President Steve Zimmer called the job "the most important in education, maybe the most important in America."
But it wasn't the most coveted. Miami Supt. Alberto Carvalho turned away entreaties, as did Joshua Starr, a former superintendent in Maryland.
The board reviewed more than 100 prospects — many who applied, some who were recruited. Then came a period of interviews for six to 11 individuals, followed by second interviews. For weeks, the board could not reach a consensus.
Over the last month, four or five people could have received a four-vote majority, sources said. But officials wanted to jump-start their next leader with a 7-0 mandate of support.
By last week, three people appeared to be under consideration: King, St. Louis Supt. Kelvin Adams and a third individual whose name never became public.
And King's loyalty and long service to the district began to look more like advantages than disadvantages. King seemed a natural follow-up to Cortines, someone who could build on the calm and stability he brought, according to those involved in the search.
Several board members also openly expressed a preference for a career educator, which eliminated some options.
Other possible candidates never got a serious review because they were too closely associated with charter schools or with locally based philanthropist Eli Broad, who has helped fund political campaigns to defeat several current board members. One educator who might have fallen into this category was St. Paul, Minn., schools Supt. Valeria S. Silva.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the district is a proposal, developed by Broad, that would greatly expand the number of independently operated charter schools. A rapid exodus of district students to charters could threaten L.A. Unified's solvency, a panel of experts recently concluded.
The Board of Education, however, is not against all charter schools, and two members, Monica Garcia and Ref Rodriguez, are regarded as charter advocates.
They could support King without alienating this portion of their base, said attorney Virgil Roberts, a veteran of the battles over education in Los Angeles. "The feeling is that it could have been worse," Roberts said of King. "And she is somebody that … seems to always want to put the kids and their education at the top of the list. She is somebody the reform community can work with."
Some observers concluded that Zimmer seemed to favor San Francisco Supt. Richard Carranza, who, early on, appeared to want the job. He also is Latino, as are three-fourths of district students. But Carranza pulled out of consideration last week. At the time, he lacked seven votes, and he ran the risk of alienating his current employers.
Board member Scott Schmerelson, a retired principal, said he found himself comparing everyone else with King.
"I've known her for so long and I see a continuous behavior of excellence," Schmerelson said. "No deviations. No matter what the situation was."
Board member Richard Vladovic had repeatedly said that it could be wise to choose an insider, someone with knowledge of the system. Besides King, he also admired Fremont Unified Supt. Jim Morris, who had worked in L.A. Unified for decades. Two factors that may have hindered Morris are his ethnicity — white — and the fact that Fremont serves a student population that is more prosperous overall than in L.A. Unified.
By this point, Zimmer and Monica Ratliff were willing to support King.
According to several sources, George McKenna, harbored some reservations. But, ultimately, he overcame them or was unwilling to be the lone vote against her. (McKenna could not be reached for comment.)
That made seven votes — a unanimous choice at last.
On Saturday, King called Cortines, inviting him to return briefly to the district Monday.
Cortines didn't ask why, but he was on hand to stand behind King — along with her three grown daughters and parents — when board members made the announcement.
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Will the safe choice for L.A. Unified chief turn out to be the best?
King, 54, attended district schools as a student, got her first job as an LAUSD student aide in 1978, became a teacher and a principal, and worked her way up to second-in-command under the last two superintendents.
We all want to root for someone who came up through the ranks, right?
But does any of that make her the best choice — or even a good choice — to lead the district?
I hope so, and I wish her success, but it's way too soon to know.
What's clear is that LAUSD board members made the safe choice. They decided on someone who has been a good, low-profile soldier rather than a strong,independent voice, and for now at least, I find that disappointing.
The 7-0 vote by board members suggests that they're comfortable with King. But their comfort isn't necessarily a good thing for anyone but themselves.
LAUSD is the nation's second-largest public school district, and it's hard to imagine anything more important to the city's success than the success of the district's largely impoverished student population.
I'm sure all the candidates who looked at the job found plenty to admire. There are great teachers getting through to deserving students in thousands of LAUSD classrooms every day.
I also know there's more than a morsel of truth in the statement by the outside candidate who declined the job, calling the district "a total mess."
Look at the problems: Declining enrollment, a steady flight by students to charters, lagging student achievement and a massive projected budget deficit, to name just a few.
Such challenges may have justified paying the handsome sum of $250,000 in consulting fees to a search firm and giving it the task of scouring the entire country for months on a mission to land the best possible candidate.
I kind of got my hopes up for a proven leader, from a functional enterprise, who could take a fresh look at what needs to be done.
But after a far-reaching search, the board members settled on someone just down the hall. Someone they passed over not all that long ago.
King, who was making $303,505 a year in her job as chief deputy superintendent, had something of an Al Haig moment several months ago, when former Supt. John Deasy's tumultuous reign came to a crashing end. In a confidential letter The Times got ahold of, she shot up her hand for the interim job. But the board instead went with former chief Ray Cortines as interim leader.
What's changed since then?
And why are board members acting is if they've only recently gotten to know the real Michelle King, who's been around for decades?
With so much at stake, I wouldn't have minded a longer, deeper search.
Now I'm wondering if board members — divided among teacher union loyalists and charter school proponents — were looking for someone to lead the district or someone they could trust to stay out of their fight.
While there may indeed be an advantage to knowing the district inside out, as King certainly does, there's a disadvantage to having been a central part of its culture and dysfunction for decades.
Let's not forget that King was No. 2 on the flow chart during Deasy's iPad debacle and the equally disastrous rollout of the electronic student tracking system. Deasy was ambitious and determined to have his way. What he needed most wasn't a meek loyalist, but someone with the courage to speak up and tell him when he was wrong.
The board has now hired a superintendent whose defining characteristic has been a low profile. On what figures to be a defining battle for control of the schools — a plan by private interests to enroll as many as half the district's students in charter schools — King had this to say after her selection was announced:
"I am not for or against the plan. I am about L.A. Unified's plan."
Here's a question:
What is that plan?
And now, since she will at least in theory be in charge of defining and articulating the district's plan, what is her plan?
We have not heard, nor have board members offered much of an explanation.
In an email to me, board President Steve Zimmer extolled King's "experience at every level, literally every level of our district: student, teacher, principal, local district supt., etc."
"But more important [was that] her depth of knowledge and understanding of the critical issues facing the district from budget to … transforming discipline were unmatched. Perhaps most important, the process gave us the chance to see different aspects of Ms. King's skills, talent, vision and passion. We were moved."
I hope, for the sake of hundreds of thousands of students, that the board's instincts were good and that the "vision" part Zimmer referred to will soon become clear.
"The very best is what every parent wants for his child and what everyone in L.A. Unified wants for our students," King said Monday.
Well, yeah. But let's ditch the bromides, please.
I'd like to know how King will draw on her experience — from LAUSD kindergarten student all the way up the ladder to superintendent — to improve instruction, clone good principals, reduce class sizes, repair broken-down schools.
She was once a science teacher, so I'd like to hear how she intends to get students excited about learning, and how she intends to motivate teachers and engage parents.
I need to be won over, but I'd be thrilled if the safe choice turns out to be the best choice.