LAUSD board-administrator conflicts underscore challenges of 'local control'

September 19, 2013

Tensions are on the rise between top administrators and the new majority on the Los Angeles Unified School District school board – underscoring the perils inherent in Gov. Jerry Brown’s move to push more control and authority for what happens in schools down to the local level.

Brown’s efforts are an attempt to reverse the top-down impulses that have characterized California’s – and the nation’s – approach to school reform over the past decade – embodied both in the federal No Child Left Behind law and California’s Public Schools Accountability Act.

His potentially transformational revision of the state’s school funding system is intended to give far greater decision-making responsibilities to local school boards to decide how state funds should be spent.  The shift embodies the principle of “subsidiarity,” a theological concept which represents “the idea that a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed at the more immediate or local level,” as Brown explained in his January State of the State speech.

But that could mean that decision-making will be thrown back into the often messy conflict zone between elected (and often changing) school boards and the paid (and often changing) school administrators and superintendents.

What is happening in LA Unified indicates just how complex local politics can be, with arguably even more potential to frustrate successful implementation of reforms than edicts from Sacramento or Washington. The relationship between the school board, with a newly elected majority, and School Superintendent John Deasy is at breaking point, causing Mayor Eric Garcetti to step in this week to try to mediate the conflict.

Said Garcetti, “I’m concerned that there will be a culture that will drown out innovation and that may ultimately leave the superintendent feeling like he can’t do his job well.”  Garcetti has taken on the issue after barely 100 days in office — an indication of how seriously he views the brewing conflict in the Beaudry Building.

Adding to volatile mix was the sudden resignation last week (effective in December) of the district’s Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Jaime Aquino. Aquino said he could no longer tolerate his dealings with the board and board President Richard Vladovic in particular. The resignation came following an eight-hour board meeting that ended with the board refusing to endorse a plan presented by Aquino for how to spend the $113 million that the district will receive from the state to implement the Common Core State Standards.

The money was a key part of Gov. Brown’s $1.2 billion fund to make sure that California moves ahead in an expeditious fashion with the Common Core, slated for full implementation in the 2014-15 school year. The board finally got around to approving the Common Core plan on Tuesday – with Aquino nowhere in sight.

Deasy himself had reportedly threatened to resign should Vladovic become president, and tensions between him and the board seem to be rising incrementally with each passing day.

These kinds of conflicts are often most acute in large urban districts, where school board politics are often the most extreme, and district administrators are under pressures to improve the performance of students whose test score results typically lag behind those of their suburban counterparts – and with fewer resources.

What happens in Los Angeles is arguably more important to the state’s bold attempt to devolve more power to local authorities than anywhere in the state. The stakes are exceptionally high. The district has more than 650,000 students, more than 10 percent of all public school students in California – and 763 schools. It is also likely to be the greatest beneficiary in dollar terms of the restructuring of California’s school finance system, because of the huge number of “high needs” students in the district who will get additional funds under Brown’s plan (now passed into law in AB 97) by the State Legislature.

A slew of reports and studies over the past decade have taken a closer look at whether the basic governance model of an elected school board and an appointed superintendent can hinder or help reforms – studies that should get a closer look as the locus of reform moves closer to the school district level in California.

A 2003 report by Education Week, for example, noted “dissatisfaction with the way many local school districts are governed runs deep,” citing a poll showing that more than half of superintendents judged to be outstanding by their peers felt that the basic school governance model should be “seriously restructured.”

Interestingly, Stanford professor Michael Kirst, several years before he became president of the State Board of Education for the second time, was quoted in the same report as saying that the school board/superintendent model can be effective. “Of course it can work,” Kirst said, pointing to several California school districts like Elk Grove and Long Beach. “What you have are traditional, superintendent-run districts with supportive school boards working very much in the background and a strong community consensus to keep it going. They’re getting good results and it’s because of the quality of the district leadership.”

That kind of leadership will be needed to ensure that California’s new school reforms succeed – reforms that Kirst, a close adviser to Gov. Brown over many years, has played a key role in making happen. Whether the school board-school superintendent relationship in Los Angeles will pass the leadership quality test is an open question. At the moment it is getting a failing grade.

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