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SCHOOLYARD FIGHT

CliffsNotes on the superintendent search

October 08, 2006|Bob Sipchen; Janine Kahn

The Los Angeles Board of Education and the headhunter it hired to find a replacement for departing Supt. Roy Romer believe that the selection process for the high-paid public position should be made behind closed doors. Last week, Times staff writers Joel Rubin and Howard Blume confirmed the names of three finalists and one outside candidate, and shed light on the subject.

Here is a narrowly focused version of a chart that has been speculating on potential candidates on The Times' School Me blog -- the work of Times education columnist Bob Sipchen and Janine Kahn.

Tom Vander Ark, 47

Executive director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's education initiatives; superintendent of Seattle's Federal Way Public Schools from 1994 to 1999.

The buzz: His children attended public school, but Vander Ark, like his boss, has tossed Molotov cocktails at the status quo by calling the way we educate high schoolers "obsolete." Nothing can prepare a person for this stupefyingly thankless job. Still, this guy has glimpsed what he's getting into while avoiding extended eye contact with the walking-dead bureaucrats who hypnotize people into the education cult.

In 2003, while he was superintendent of the Seattle-area school district, the former corporate executive told NW Education magazine that the job was "life in a fishbowl" The politics was intense, he said. As for finance? "The most convoluted thing I've ever seen."

"It's a lot harder to lead a $120-million school district than it is a $5-billion corporation," he said. Well, guess what? L.A. Unified's operating budget is more than $7 billion, with a $19-billion building project in the works. This MBA does have access to dough, though. The Gates Foundation recently shoveled $1.3 million into L.A. Unified and $1.8 million into Steve Barr's Green Dot public charter schools. Would more money chase this man to the district?

The odds: 33%, based on word that he wowed board members

Carlos A. Garcia, 54

Became a vice president of McGraw-Hill's education division last year after heading school districts in the Fresno area and then putting in five years as head of the then-292,000-student Clark County, Nev., school district.

The buzz: Las Vegas is growing fast, has built a bunch of schools and has a tech high that everyone thinks is wicked good. But Vegas isn't in L.A.'s league, and the L.A. Unified job isn't a job to step up to. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the district's test scores dropped significantly during Garcia's tenure. Sure, the district's student population was shifting to majority non-English-speaking. Still, his explanations to the paper read like a litany of whiny excuses.

This guy has race card written all over him -- could the search committee not present the board with a Latino? In his favor, he's already received a lesson in the absurdly disingenuous nature of L.A. Unified-style ethnic politics. In 2000, African American leaders publicly bashed him even after he apologized for a ham-handed remark to black teenagers, even though the remark's intent was obviously innocent.

The odds: 10% -- pluses: ethnicity and mega-exurb experience; minuses: record and string-puller antipathy

Ted Mitchell, 50

Former Occidental College president who heads the nonprofit NewSchools Venture Fund; chairman of the Governor's Advisory Committee on Education Excellence.

The buzz: Mitchell says he's not really in the running, but this job is sufficiently challenging to tempt any ambitious civic leader if proper pressure were applied. In the last school board election, shadow string-puller Eli Broad and former Mayor Richard Riordan pushed Mitchell to run against board member David Tokofsky. Mitchell declined.

Mitchell knows his stuff and no one doubts that his heart's in the right place. But how does running a 1,800-student liberal arts college prepare someone to run a mega-district of 712,000 students? Sensing inexperience, the cafeteria workers might well lock him in a pantry and pelt him with syrupy canned peaches.

The odds: 12% -- pluses: string-pullers like him, knows local scene; minuses: understandable reluctance

Alan Bersin, 59

California's secretary of education; formerly the superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District.

The buzz: In theory, the board could get roaring drunk this weekend and select Paris Hilton as superintendent. That's why the buzz about Bersin's candidacy should be taken seriously, even though he's not officially on the finalist list.

The reputedly arrogant Harvard footballer and Rhodes scholar lawyered for Munger, Tolles & Olson, and is on the board of Broad's Institute for Superintendents. The power elite reportedly likes him. So did the business boys in San Diego.

The unions didn't. The Mayor-Who-Would-Be-Governor may be unwilling to buck United Teachers Los Angeles' charmingly cocky president and his increasingly disgruntled crew -- even though word is that Bersin learned a lot from his klutzy run-ins with labor.

The odds: 5% -- pluses: plenty; negatives: shot-caller cowardice in face of the unions

Mystery candidates:

As of Friday evening, when Current prints, neither School Me nor The Times' crackerjack superintendent sleuths had pried loose the names of the last two finalists -- or a full list of other possibilities.

Sources mysteriously say that one candidate has a military background -- Navy, it's rumored -- suggesting that the search committee foolishly ignored School Me's excellent nominee: Gen. Colin L. Powell.

Another finalist reportedly has such delicate sensibilities that he or she would withdraw immediately if publicly named -- making said candidate's suitability for this rough-and-tumble role suspect.

P.S.: Anyone heartless enough to out this gentle soul can e-mail joel.rubin@latimes.com.

The odds: 40% -- based solely on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

For updates, and a more fulsome charticle on the top-secret superintendent search, visit latimes.com/schoolme.

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