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Next L.A. Schools Chief Gets New Powers Too

Much has been made of the mayor's authority, but the superintendent may hold more clout than ever. Some fear confusion and conflict.

September 30, 2006|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

The next superintendent of Los Angeles schools is likely to be the most powerful schools chief in the history of the system. This CEO, who runs an agency larger than the city of Los Angeles, won't need anyone's permission to hire senior staff, bring on consultants and sign big-money contracts for everything from buying plastic utensils to building schools. And the new superintendent will be much more difficult to fire.

While most attention has been focused on increased powers granted to the mayor in legislation signed into law recently, the changes it makes to the superintendent's role are just as sweeping.

This new reality will begin Jan. 1, pending an expected legal challenge, and is among the more experimental aspects of the reform plan advanced by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Critics have long maintained that the Los Angeles Unified School District's superintendent has been hampered by micromanaging from board members beholden to the constituents who elected them. And a remedy was very intentionally built into the Villaraigosa-backed legislation.

The next superintendent will have "more executive authority," said Thomas Saenz, counsel to the mayor and a primary architect of the new order. "This superintendent will be more of a CEO, with the ability to manage day-to-day operations without interference from the school board."

The role of the superintendent is especially important now that current schools chief Roy Romer, 77, has announced that he wants to retire as soon as a successor can be chosen. The selection process is well underway -- a search committee met in private last weekend and plans to meet again today to interview candidates. A shortlist of finalists is expected to be forwarded to the school board next week.

Some observers have wondered why anyone would want a job that is not only impossibly difficult but suddenly a political minefield as well, with the mayor and the school board at odds. But Romer proved over the last six years that progress is possible, and his successor will have more muscle than he did.

Until now, the elected seven-member board has been the superintendent's boss. Given shifting alliances, even a request from one board member was something a superintendent would pay attention to.

Under the new law, Assembly Bill 1381, the superintendent has the power to make more decisions without heeding board input.

The superintendent's expanded jurisdiction applies to running the school-construction program, hiring senior management staff, seeking state waivers for new programs, assigning principals, signing contracts and making necessary but routine budget actions.

"I'm not sure that it's enough power, but it's certainly an improvement," said Caprice Young, who heads the California Charter Schools Assn. and was a member of the school board that hired Romer.

She recalled Romer's having to spend "60 to 70% of the time in school board meetings or preparing for meetings." The next superintendent will have "more power over the things that matter while the school board focuses on governance issues rather than sporks versus forks -- or plastic pouches versus wax carton juice boxes."

Board members could, of course, continue to discuss any budget item or any contract, and request any information. But board members would have no greater legal claim than an ordinary citizen for detailed budget information. And except with major budget categories, the superintendent would not have to obey the board's wishes on how to spend the money.

Romer has some enhanced authority through his personal employment contract -- especially when it comes to managing the building of 160 new schools. Officials wanted the district to respond quickly to construction bids in a tight market, so Romer can approve a project as large as $45 million and then get official board consent later.

He also can approve contracts up $250,000 without advance permission from board members.

The new rules make such authority -- and then some -- a matter of permanent law, not changeable policy.

But is this framework an overcorrection? Has the mayor created an unaccountable superintendent?

To address this concern, the mayor's team refined the role of the school district's inspector general. District officials already choose to employ an inspector general as an official watchdog. Under the new law, having an inspector general remains voluntary, but the board cannot trim his budget or terminate his contract without cause.

"Now there is a very, very strong incentive for the school board members to hire an inspector general," said Saenz, of the mayor's office. "Without one, they have much more restricted access to information about contracting."

Romer said this approach asks too much of the inspector general, whose job "is to look for a certain kind of fraud and abuse."

When it comes to evaluating the decisions of the superintendent, the ultimate and appropriate authority should be the mayor, said Saenz.

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