In a turbulent week at the helm of California’s largest school district, the uncertainty in the leadership of Los Angeles Unified became more acute with the announcement that Superintendent Michelle King, already out on medical leave, will not be returning to the district until January — at the earliest.
King has been on medical leave since September 15. Three weeks ago, she appointed Vivian Ekchian as acting superintendent in her place. “As I continue to recover from my medical procedure, I would like to express my sincerest gratitude for your countless well wishes and unwavering support,” King wrote in an email Tuesday to district staff. “To keep you updated, I anticipate returning to the office after the first of the year.”
Neither King nor the district have disclosed the reasons for her absence, but the uncertain time frame for her return — sometime after January 1 — signals considerable caution about specifying a date when she could resume her duties.
Over the years, concerns have been expressed about whether the district is too large to be reasonably managed, and whether — because of its size in terms of geography, number of students served and schools — it is even governable.
Within its boundaries, the district serves 640,000 students, enrolled in some 900 regular public schools and over 200 independent charter schools. The district covers an area of more than 720 square miles, which because of Los Angeles’ legendary traffic jams makes travel across the district very difficult during school hours.
King sent the email on the same day that former board president Ref Rodriguez, who resigned as board president after just two months in the post, pleaded not guilty to felony and misdemeanor charges regarding contributions to his election campaign last spring.
On the same day, the three board members who along with Rodriguez comprise the new board majority — current board president Mónica García along with newly elected members Nick Melvoin and member Kelly Gonez — called on Rodriguez to take a leave of absence while he attempts to resolves his legal problems. He refused.
All this occurred the same week that the LA Times disclosed that some of Rodriguez’s former colleagues at the Partnership to Uplift Communities (PUC) charter schools that he co-founded charged him with violating California’s “conflict of interest” laws for transferring nearly $300,000 in funds from the charter school to another nonprofit corporation he headed.
If King does return in January, it would mean that she would have been absent from her post for three and a half months, virtually the entire fall term.
Earlier reports in the Los Angeles Times quoted insiders as saying she had to undergo surgery, but the lack of details about her condition suggest that her recovery is anything but routine.
Ironically, what may help the district weather the current upheaval at district headquarters in downtown Los Angeles is that its size has forced it to decentralize its operations. The district is divided into six local districts, each with its own superintendent.
At the far end of the district, San Pedro High School, for example, is 25 miles from district headquarters on South Beaudry Street. With clogged freeways, it could take an hour or more to get there.
Board members are themselves elected from districts rather than being at-large members. For most district staff, and certainly for students, the events in what for many is a faraway downtown is likely to have little impact on the day-to-day running, or realities, of its schools.