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L.A. Schools Need a Leader Driven by Spirit of Reform

Poor math and reading scores have to be targeted

March 02, 1997

The impending choice of a new superintendent for Los Angeles schools is crucial to the quality of public education and the city's future. This is no time for business as usual.

The public schools are in trouble. What more evidence do we need than dismal test scores, a high dropout rate and the complaints of employers who hire graduates of the Los Angeles Unified School District?

The school board needs to select a tough, effective, visionary reformer to boost academic achievement. A board decision that emphasizes that goal would provide the support a no-nonsense manager would need to re-energize the district and restore public confidence.

Without strong leadership the quality of education on nearly every campus is threatened. Basic skills are the mission of tax-supported schools, yet reading and math scores in the district are scandalously low. These failures handicap students in the quest for a college education and rewarding work.

Few public jobs are as important as that of the superintendent of schools. In Boston, Seattle and Washington, new take-charge superintendents are promoting change from top to bottom. They are increasing accountability and thinning swollen bureaucracies. They are rooting out bad principals and administrators and targeting cronyism.

The head of the LAUSD can make such changes only with the cooperation of the district's powerful unions. It should be given. The new chief also will confront problems uncontrollable from the superintendent's office: inadequate financing, a surging enrollment, the teacher shortage.

These challenges may explain why only three candidates so far have announced that they are seeking the job, despite an ongoing national search and an annual salary of $163,000. Deputy Supt. Ruben Zacarias, a career educator and veteran of the district, was the first applicant. A little-known British educator, Matt Dunkley, who visited the district last year to learn about reforms, has thrown his hat in the ring. Now the former CEO of First Interstate Bancorp, William E. B. Siart, is offering his business skills and professional management experience to the LAUSD, which has a $5-billion budget, 60,000 employees and nearly 900 schools and centers. The process remains open, and the final candidates are not expected to make their pitches to the school board until perhaps early April.

The next superintendent should be in place by June 30, the date on which Sid Thompson, the fourth LAUSD chief in a decade, is expected to retire after four years in office. It is also the date on which the annual contracts of district senior managers expire. A new superintendent should be able to choose his or her own management team, from inside or outside the district; the district should not renew yearlong contracts without consulting the incoming chief.

This is a pivotal moment for Los Angeles schools. The board has a hard decision before it. What is certain is that our schools will get what the board members deliver. And every voter should be watching.

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