Los Angeles school officials Friday rejected the mayor's request for confidential information about the search to replace retiring schools chief Roy Romer.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had sought "all relevant information about all applicants" both for himself and for other members of a new "council of mayors" that will have partial authority over the school system as of Jan. 1.
But the secret search will remain so, wrote school board President Marlene Canter: "It would betray the promised confidentiality to distribute information on the participants to a group of the size you describe, especially at this time."
The hunt for Romer's successor is reaching a pivotal stage. Potential finalists from an original group of 100 or so are being interviewed behind closed doors this weekend.
The response from the mayor's office was immediate and heated.
"The mayor is deeply disappointed," said spokeswoman Janelle Erickson. "This letter is a bald rejection of Mayor Villaraigosa's call for partnership in choosing the next superintendent. It further isolates the Board of Education from the broad and historic coalition of parents, teachers, business and community leaders who have come together to bring fundamental change to our schools. It's time for the board to end their obstructionist tactics, recognize the Legislature's mandate, and open the process."
In her letter, Canter pointed out that board members themselves do not know the identity of applicants and recruits. The school board could have opted for an open process, but such secrecy is common for the early stages of a high-profile superintendent search. The idea is for contenders to apply confidentially without risking offense to their current employers and to limit outside political influence.
But that doesn't mitigate Villaraigosa's frustration: A major fruit of his hard-fought effort is a role in helping choose the superintendent, the single person most responsible for running the public schools. But the timing of Romer's voluntary departure -- he'd like to leave as soon as possible -- along with the time lag before the new law takes effect could cut Villaraigosa out of the loop.
The mayor could even be geographically out of touch if the decision is made during his 16-day trade mission to China, South Korea and Japan that begins Oct. 7.
The mayor's office tried to forestall this possibility. "What type of message would it send if the board tries to railroad this decision past the council of mayors while the mayor is representing Los Angeles abroad?" Erickson said.
Villaraigosa's Sept. 18 letter, which prompted Canter's response, spoke of a "spirit of partnership" in urging the board to inform him about the candidates and to allow him into interviews. But Villaraigosa also threatened to fire any superintendent not to his liking -- although he will lack the unilateral authority to do so.
Even under the new law, Villaraigosa's formal participation would be indirect, through a council of mayors who together represent all portions of the sprawling school district. Villaraigosa will dominate that council, but he has no more right to information than any other member. The council is not yet formed.
Once the school board is briefed on finalists, there could be another chance to include the mayor before the hire is made.
Canter indicated her commitment to involve Villaraigosa "in the search process as it moves forward. Our students will be best served by choosing a superintendent that both the board and our mayor can unite behind."