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Danger of Haste in LAUSD Search

May 28, 2000

The Los Angeles school board, in a rush to select the next superintendent, should remember the adage, "Haste makes waste." Realistically, can board members choose the best new school chief next week, after four of five finalists have withdrawn and with the fifth lacking the full support of the board?

Interviews with new candidates--including George Munoz, former president of the Chicago Board of Education, and John Murphy, former superintendent in Charlotte, N.C.--are to be within days, about a month before interim Supt. Ramon C. Cortines is scheduled to leave.

Yes, the board faces a tough deadline. Yes, the board wants to settle quickly on a new superintendent to allow for a transition between leaders. Since that hasn't happened, it should consider trying to persuade Cortines to stay longer or finding another interim leader.

Rather than rush to fill the position, the board needs to step back, extend the national search and allow adequate time to pick the best possible superintendent: a smart leader who is tough enough to tackle low test scores, uneven teacher quality, overcrowded schools and looming labor battles. The next superintendent will also need political and diplomatic skills, as well as stamina, to take on the nation's second-largest district. The Los Angeles Unified School District has 710,000 students, the majority of whom cannot read or write or do math at grade level.

Two people who could have done the job--experienced and proven educators who know how to raise test scores and shape up school districts--decided they weren't interested. Arlene Ackerman is leaving the District of Columbia public schools to head the San Francisco system, and Carlos A. Garcia will leave Fresno to head the Las Vegas school district. Both names were on wish lists in Los Angeles. The L.A. board needs to know what discouraged them from seeking to run the LAUSD and how those disincentives can be fixed.

The wrong choice could be a death knell for the LAUSD. The move to break up the district will gain supporters if the next superintendent, the fifth in a decade, flounders or fails.

The next top executive will be expected to build on the instructional and management reforms pushed through by Cortines, and he or she will have the support of a reformist school board more interested in change than in micromanaging. This means that the right choice, a leader bent on steady progress and with the skills to make it happen, could succeed resoundingly. It's up to the board to persuade the best candidate of that. Because if the board chooses wrong, the next LAUSD school chief may be the last.

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