The Los Angeles Board of Education slips behind closed doors this morning to begin in earnest the debate over who should guide the nation's second-largest school system into the next century.
At least three of the seven board members say they still enter the room favoring Los Angeles Unified Deputy Supt. Ruben Zacarias. The most likely swing vote--David Tokofsky--has long drifted in that direction, too.
But whether a decision to turn away the other two finalists--William E. B. Siart and Daniel Domenech--could or should be reached in one day is a matter of some disagreement, even among board members.
Some believe that the yearlong process to search out and choose among 50 candidates merits at least a few days of discussion by the board. Others feel that they have said all they need to say and should vote either today or, at the outside, on Thursday.
"I thought we could vote, but they're talking about another couple weeks," said board member George Kiriyama, one of Zacarias' longtime backers. "I said, 'What for? What are we going to discuss?' "
Moments later, however, even Kiriyama acknowledged that there is much left to discuss, including the relative merits of banker Siart and Long Island regional superintendent Domenech. He would, Kiriyama said, feel comfortable with any of them.
School Board President Jeff Horton said he would like the decision to be unanimous, a lofty goal with the usually divided board.
Beyond the main decision of who gets the job, the board appears poised to embark on some ancillary yet crucial conversations about restructuring upper school district management. A radical notion involves splitting the job now held by retiring Supt. Sid Thompson--perhaps even offering the other half to one or both of the other finalists.
"Gut feeling, I would think that those votes [for Zacarias] are still there, but there may be some creative ways of looking at this," said board member Julie Korenstein, who last year helped push for opening the search process rather than immediately promoting Zacarias.
In an apparent concession that the job is too big for one person, Zacarias has told public and private audiences during the past week of campaigning that he would like to hire a business czar to run noneducational services. Some board members have gone further, wistfully outlining a scenario of hiring all three men.
"It's almost touchable because the qualities that came forward [during candidate interviews] are all priority needs for the district, but not one candidate had all of it," said board member Victoria Castro, Zacarias' strongest backer.
A triumvirate is not necessarily what the candidates had in mind, however. Siart could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but Domenech said the No. 2 position is not for him.
"I certainly wouldn't have any problem with Mr. Zacarias staying in his deputy post, nor would I have a problem with Mr. Siart coming in in some business function," Domenech said. "But I've been in charge for 19 years. . . . I've been calling the shots for so long, I don't know that I would work out as a staff person."
Board member Barbara Boudreaux, who also gives Zacarias the edge, said she would not agree to such an arrangement because it would bypass "some of the people who have lined themselves up for promotion" in the district.
Behind the scenes, a multiethnic deal aimed at pleasing a board majority had been rumored--Zacarias for the top job, one of two African American administrators as his deputy and Assistant Supt. Frances Nakano taking the third place. Castro volunteered Tuesday that she had tried to broker that deal, but she said it never came together.
Reflecting a sentiment expressed by several board members, Castro said her main concern now is ensuring that the board gives Zacarias--or whoever is chosen--both the support and freedom he needs to do the job well. This, she said, is what she hopes dominates the next day or so of closed-door board meetings.
"We need to commit to reorganize . . . and then back off and let him organize and let him select his staff," she said. "It can't just be Ruben and no support. . . . I don't want to be two years down the road saying we shouldn't have selected Ruben."