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L.A.'s Insensitive School Board : In Bypassing Qualified Minorities, It Invites Racism Charge

May 14, 1987|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer.

What does it take for a Mexican-American--or any other minority person for that matter--to be given a chance to run the Los Angeles city schools?

That question is being asked by Latino community leaders as they ponder the surprising, and suspiciously secretive, decision that the Los Angeles Board of Education made last week in picking a new superintendent. They passed over retiring Supt. Harry Handler's two top deputies, both minorities, and chose a white male, Leonard M. Britton, instead.

The job is a step up for Britton, who will move from Dade County, Florida, the fourth-largest school district in the nation with 240,000 students, to the second-largest district, which has 590,000 students. The Los Angeles job also carries high visibility and national influence on education issues. But considering the criticism Britton's appointment is getting, he must be wondering if the Los Angeles school board did him any favors by luring him West after a long career as a teacher in his native Pennsylvania and Florida.

By most accounts Britton, 56, is a capable and respected school administrator. He also gets good reviews for dealing sensitively with Latinos and other ethnic groups in his seven years running a school system that serves Miami, Hialeah and other heavily Latino cities. But there are important differences between Florida's Cuban-Americans and California's Mexican-Americans, so it cannot be assumed that Britton will get along well here just because he speaks some Spanish.

In fact, the school board has assured that Britton will get a rough reception when he arrives simply because of the way it mishandled his hiring. The seven board members virtually sequestered themselves during the final days of the selection process. They excluded Handler from discussions as to his possible successor, and even refused to share information with thenew school board members who take office July 1.

Granted, the final choice culminated a 10-month public search for a superintendent, and it is not unusual for public bodies to handle personnel matters in private. But the last-minute secrecy made the board members, three of whom are slated to leave office at the end of June, look aloof and arrogant in dealing with an issue that is especially important to Latinos--the management of a public school system that is 56% Latino.

It also contributed to a cynical suspicion that the board members were trying to hide from the activist groups that have been pushing for a Latino to head the school district.

The anger generated by the school board's secrecy led Latino activist Gina Alonso, a former teacher and the chief spokesman for the activists campaigning for a Latino superintendent, to attack Britton's selection as "racist." Usually a strident charge like that can be dismissed out of hand--but not this time.

For while Alonso's views are extreme, they accurately reflect what I have heard throughout the Latino community. Even the most conservative business and political leaders are asking why an Anglo outsider was selected to run Los Angeles' schools when there are several qualified minorities and women in the district who could do the job.

Latinos are asking where the board's outspoken liberals, Rita Walters and Jackie Goldberg, were when they finally had a chance to put their oft-stated belief in affirmative action to work? Others wonder if board members John Greenwood, who was defeated for reelection by an Asian-American, and Roberta Weintraub, who was unsuccessfully challenged by a Latina, are trying to get back at minorities for having had the temerity to go after them politically.

But there is more to this issue than politics or affirmative action. When city schools are so heavily minority, and will stay that way well into the next century, isn't it about time minorities were given a chance to run things? It's not such a radical idea. What could be safer than appointing a minority from within the system, someone who knows it and who plays by its rules, like the two candidates passed over in favor of Britton--William Anton, a Mexican-American, and Sidney Thompson, a black.

Both men are highly regarded by their peers in the school district. But Anton and Thompson also are known and respected in the community at large.

On the city's Eastside, Anton's name is almost synonymous with the city schools. He has been with the district more than 35 years, starting as teacher in the Marvilla barrio and working his way up to principal and then to The Hill, as the district's downtown headquarters is known. Anton is a company man almost to a fault. Yet when he finally had the chance to head the company, it apparently didn't matter.

As I see it, the only good explanation for selecting Britton over Anton, or Thompson for that matter, is the fact he happened to run an urban school system somewhat similar to Los Angeles.

But that just doesn't seem like enough. So, unfortunately for Britton, minorities have good reason to suspect that more than his educational qualifications came into play.

Having become school chief in Dade County after the Liberty City race riots, and during an influx of Cuban and Haitian refugees, Britton got a reputation as an education trouble-shooter in Miami. That's good, because Britton's going to need all the trouble-shooting skills at his disposal when he starts his new job here.

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