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Local Educator Wanted as Next Superintendent


Guiding the Los Angeles Unified School District into the next century will be a daunting task best handled by a local educator who has spent time in the classroom, according to a Los Angeles Times poll.

Respondents to the poll, conducted two weeks ago, were about equally divided over whether anyone could succeed in turning around the 660-school district.

But, in descending order, they offered the school board this advice as it decides who will be the new superintendent:

Find someone with a background in education. Find someone who has worked in Los Angeles school administration.

Find someone who exhibits business know-how.

Find someone with the ability to communicate with the many factions that have a stake in public schools.

A far lower priority was race or ethnicity, expected to be a significant political factor in the board's selection of a replacement for Supt. Sid Thompson, who will step down at the end of June.

The top challenge facing the next superintendent, respondents said, is addressing school violence, followed by improving funding for schools, raising academic standards, further reducing class size and implementing a back-to-basics curriculum.

"They need to find somebody that would actually have the heart and guts to go out to each school and see what's wrong," said 33-year-old Raquel Sheldon of North Hollywood, a mother of three Los Angeles Unified students and one of those polled. "I know that's a lot to ask, but it's important."

Sheldon, like two-thirds of those polled, said it was not important that the future superintendent be Latino, even after they were told that nearly 70% of the district's students are Latino.

Although Latinos were more likely to believe that was an important characteristic than any other ethnic group, even they were split, with 47% saying it was important and 52% saying it was not.

"I'm Latino myself, but I feel like we're not alone . . . there's all kinds of [ethnicities] in the schools here," said Carlo Salas, 24, of the San Fernando Valley. "As long as someone cares about the kids and education, it doesn't matter what ethnic background they have."

The poll of 1,103 Los Angeles city residents, taken from March 22 to 27 under the supervision of Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus, has a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Thompson's decision a year ago to step down as leader of the nation's second-largest public school system touched off a search that began with a citizens committee establishing selection criteria. The search is expected to culminate Thursday with the announcement of between three to five finalists for the job.

The school board is scheduled to vote this afternoon on a proposal to add three open forums around the district where the finalists would be quizzed by the public. Eight invitation-only events, sponsored by groups ranging from unions to the PTA, are already planned.

Throughout the past year, three of seven school board members and many Latino activists, politicians and parents have pushed for promoting Deputy Supt. Ruben Zacarias, who speaks Spanish fluently and who began his district career as an Eastside teacher more than three decades ago.

Just two other candidates have made public their interest in the job: British educator Matt Dunkley, who would like to import his experience decentralizing school governance in London, and William Siart, the former chief executive of First Interstate Bank, who believes that his business acumen would help him streamline district administration and better control the nearly $5-billion annual budget.

As the superintendent selection process moved through 31 public hearings and numerous closed-door meetings, most school board members have attempted to keep their opinions to themselves, even refusing to help an executive search firm prioritize a long list of selection criteria.

But a majority of board members have made it clear that they favor someone with education administration experience.

Those polled by the Times agreed.

Among all respondents, 68% said the next superintendent should harken from the field of education, while just 14% said he or she should be a businessperson.

Parents with children in public schools were even more adamant, with 74% favoring an educator.

Poll respondent Mary Porter, a retired U.S. Treasury Department manager, said she has too often seen private-sector bosses flounder in the public sector.

"I think that unless you've walked the road, sometimes there are things that come up, you just don't have an idea of how to deal with," said Porter, of South-Central Los Angeles. "A person not familiar with the system would just get frustrated with it."

When asked to cite two traits they thought should be considered in choosing among superintendent applicants, experience in Los Angeles school administration was among the top responses, as was a teaching background.

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