As Leonard M. Britton sees it, the three biggest challenges facing him as the Los Angeles Unified School District's new superintendent are increasing students' achievement scores, improving relations with the teachers' union and easing severe classroom overcrowding.
But one of Britton's first tasks could be soothing some minority groups who were outraged that the board on Friday selected Britton, who is an Anglo, over the Latino and black finalists from within the district.
Britton, superintendent of schools in Dade County, Fla., for the last seven years, was joined by the entire school board at a press conference Saturday morning as he talked about his past and outlined his aspirations for the nation's second largest school district.
Later, Latino activists denounced his selection. "We feel this is a racist decision which clearly shows employment discrimination against Latinos," said Gina Alonso, who represents a coalition of 40 Latino organizations that has been lobbying for a Latino superintendent. "The message is clear: if you are Latino and the best qualified, don't bother to apply."
She said Latino groups will ask the board to reconsider.
"I would say that there will be quite a bit of calamity and clamor raised in the Hispanic community," agreed Ruben Jauregui, president of the Latin Business Assn., which represents about 600 Latin-owned businesses.
Mindful of minority groups' disappointment, Britton spoke briefly in Spanish at the press conference, although he later acknowledged that he is still learning the language.
"I tried in a little statement in Spanish this morning to reach out and let people know I am trying to communicate," said the white-haired, 56-year-old administrator.
"I can understand their concerns. . . . When you get a district with more than 50% Hispanic children, you feel a little more comfortable if the person who is leading it and setting the directions understands where you're coming from, your cultural interests and language needs."
The Los Angeles district, the nation's second biggest, has a 58% Latino enrollment that is expected to grow. Blacks and whites each make up 18%.
Deputy Supt. Sidney Thompson, the district's top-ranking black administrator and one of three finalists for the superintendent post, suggested that it would be wrong to dwell on the board's unanimous decision.
"There are too many youngsters out there with too many problems; they don't need ours," he said. "I don't think we have time now to say what if and wish. Let's move on and get these students achieving."
But Thompson acknowledged that "the board will fully have to expect to get those questions (on its selection). I think the board will respond with what it is they used to come to that decision."
Thompson and Deputy Supt. William Anton, the other contender and the district's top Latino official, sat quietly with senior staff members in the back of the room during the press conference. Anton left immediately afterward.
"I deplore the fact that they did not select a minority candidate," said Juanita De Sosa, secretary of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
"It can be discouraging. We know there are qualified blacks and Latinos. It's time they got looked at; it's time they got selected."
Alan Clayton, the civil rights representative for the League of United Latin American Citizens, criticized the board's judgment.
"Frankly, I think they are a little nervous about having a Latino," he said. "For some reason, when it gets to the top position, non-Latinos seem to be concerned about appointing a Latino."
Gonzalez Urges Unity
However, the board's lone Latino member, Larry Gonzalez, said he hopes that everyone "closes ranks and unites" behind Britton.
This is not the first time Britton has found himself embroiled in a racial politics. In 1980, despite protests from blacks in Dade County, Britton was chosen to replace the system's first black superintendent, who had been indicted and was later convicted in a scandal known as the "Gold Plumbing Caper."
Three years later, black activists asked the school board to insist that Britton appoint a black person as second in command. Britton favored promoting a black to one of five associate superintendent posts, but balked at having a right-hand man and objected to using race as the deciding factor.
"To use the criterion of race or ethnicity would open us to the charge of discrimination," Britton said at the time. "People who have been promoted have received their jobs because of competency, not because of race or ethnicity."
On Saturday, Britton noted that he comes from a racially mixed district where 42% of the students are Spanish-speaking and 32% are black. He said he surrounded himself with minority group members in top administrative posts so that the needs of ethnic groups could be met.
Raised in Pennsylvania