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How not to pick a new schools chief

October 08, 2006|Ramon C. Cortines | RAMON C. CORTINES is Los Angeles deputy mayor for education, youth and families. A former schools superintendent in Pasadena, San Jose and San Francisco, he also served as interim L.A. Unified superintendent in 2000.

CHOOSING THE next L.A. Unified superintendent is the biggest decision the school board will make. It should be made with a keen eye on the future.

The next superintendent must be a leader and an agent of change -- rapidly accelerating reform, reducing the dropout rate and increasing student performance, completing a historic school-construction program, and decreasing the district's central bureaucracy so that resources and decisions can be moved to school communities. He or she must have the financial acumen of a Fortune 500 chief executive, the mind of a scholar and the determination of a marathon runner.

Just as important, the next superintendent must have the support of parents, teachers and business and community leaders if the reforms already in place are to take root and those needed for continued educational improvement are to be implemented.

Although the school board clings to the outdated notion that selecting a superintendent is its job alone, the truth is that our public schools are central to our economy and quality of life, and to the future of our region. As former Mayor Richard Riordan aptly noted in 1997, "The new superintendent must also have the backing of our entire community, for we are all stakeholders in the education of our children."

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has proposed, on behalf of the soon-to-be-formed council of mayors, that he be allowed to interview the finalists for the superintendent job and provide feedback to the school board. This is a modest and eminently reasonable proposal that the board would be well advised to accept. It's true that the landmark L.A. Unified reform measure signed into law last month, which gives the mayor substantial control over the district, does not go into effect until Jan. 1. But despite that, the mayor should be part of the current superintendent-selection process to lay the groundwork for a long-term community partnership to bring about change.

In addition, the board should consider the voice of the community -- perhaps taking a page from the lively community forums in which I participated as a candidate for the job of superintendent of the San Jose Public School District or from those held by L.A. Unified in the late 1990s -- so that parents and community members can meet the candidates in person and ask questions.

The notion, advanced by some school board members, that those applying to head the nation's second-largest school district have something to fear by appearing in public is nonsense. The board should know -- and the community will know -- that any candidate who shies away from meeting parents, teachers and civic and business leaders is not going to last long as superintendent. This is a very public job.

The next superintendent will be responsible not only to the board of education but also to Villaraigosa and the Council of Mayors. In addition, he or she must be accessible to communities from San Pedro to the northern reaches of the San Fernando Valley to the city's border to the east and the Pacific.

I believe that the school board is committed to finding a dynamic leader to head the district, but that's not the point. The selection process must be transparent to ensure that the next superintendent is not only qualified but also has the broadest public support.

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