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Filling Top Post a Thorny Task for L.A. School District

Education: Job's thrust is unclear amid reform, possible breakup. Latino insider wants it; some seek an outsider.


An urban school superintendent's job is an unenviable one in the best of times. Nationally, their average tenure is shorter than a high school student's stay.

But when Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Sid Thompson announced last week that he will retire at the end of his current contract, he threw up for grabs a post many educators view as their profession's version of "Mission Impossible."

"I hope I'm wrong, but I don't think there's going to be national interest in that job," said Bob Peterkin, director of the Urban Superintendents Program at Harvard University. "Los Angeles is too large, there's too much board politics and everybody in the community thinks they have an answer for that district."

Turnover of urban school superintendents has become legendary in education circles, hovering somewhere between two and three years, according to the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization representing the largest school districts in the country.

And on top of the familiar big-city school challenges of flaccid test scores, campus violence and union skirmishes, Los Angeles faces the even more daunting hurdles of ethnic politics, a hands-on school board, an education-minded mayor and--perhaps most of all--the state Legislature's recent passage of a law easing the process required to break up the 660-campus system.

"The big question in L.A. is whether this district superintendency is about transforming a school district or organizing a liquidation sale," said Charles T. Kerchner, an education professor at Claremont Graduate School. "Those are really different jobs."

Even those who view a breakup as unlikely say the transfer of authority to individual schools under LEARN--the reform and decentralization program now in 300 schools--will fundamentally change the top job, rendering the district's central office a service provider and its superintendent the chief commissar.

The key, education experts say, is for school board members to use the luxury of the 14 months remaining on Thompson's contract to take a long hard look inward: Do they want a shake-up or status quo? A visionary or an executor? An educator or a manager or a politician?

"The board needs to take a deep breath and figure out a solid, deliberative public process for examining the qualities that we're looking for," said board member Jeff Horton.

Working against such a measured approach are efforts to avert a drawn-out political battle by simply appointing Thompson's right-hand man, Ruben Zacarias. Ethnic politics became so heated three years ago, when Thompson, an African American, and Zacarias, a Latino, were pitted against each other, that members of a Latino coalition threatened to hold children out of school if Zacarias were not chosen.

Pressure to move rapidly is coming from inside, where school board member Victoria Castro--the board's only Latina--wants Zacarias named heir apparent on Monday--at the very meeting where the selection process is supposed to begin. So far only one board member, George Kiriyama, has said he would be ready to back such a plan.

But pressure also is mounting outside the board, where some of the same Latino activists and politicians who backed Zacarias in 1993 are demanding his appointment this time. Already, calls supporting him are pouring into some school board members' offices.

"I don't want to look at this as a race issue. I want to look at it as who is best for the job," said influential Eastside City Councilman Richard Alatorre, a key political ally of Mayor Richard Riordan. Alatorre says Zacarias is the best person for the job and should be named immediately.

For his part, the mayor--who backs a district breakup and whose reelection platform includes education reform--said the district should "search the country, including people at the LAUSD," for a candidate "who has the backbone to make decisions in a dysfunctional bureaucracy."

Some Latino leaders say they would prefer to see a full-scale search, with a priority placed on finding a Latino. Even if Zacarias is ultimately the choice, they say, his appointment would gain credibility if it followed a thorough process.

"I think Ruben Zacarias is a very, very viable candidate," said John Fernandez, director of the school district's Mexican American Education Commission. "But this is only the start. I think there has to be a search."

The urgency of naming a Latino superintendent is increasing as the Latino predominance among students grows, Fernandez and others said. Today, 67% of the district's students are Latino, 14% are African American, 11% are white and 5% are Asian American.

In addition, the new superintendent will confront several issues of critical importance to Latinos, including renewed attacks on bilingual education and ongoing efforts to bar illegal immigrants from public education.

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