The Los Angeles Unified Board of Education is again looking for a new superintendent, after Michelle King recently announced she is battling cancer and will be retiring in June.
All Californians should care about who is selected to lead the district that educates more than one in ten students in the state. Districts across the state are following Los Angeles Unified’s efforts to address the conflict and polarization that has been exacerbated by an unfortunate and inaccurate distinction between “pro-charter” and “anti-charter” advocates.
The Los Angeles superintendent selection process will either lead the way towards greater division, or show us how to work together for the education of all our students.
For these reasons it is essential that the board choose its next superintendent via a unanimous or near-unanimous vote. Wide support will be critical to securing a superintendent who enjoys the support and trust required to lead our diverse district. Unfortunately, the board is rushing on a fast track with limited public involvement, setting the stage for a narrow and potentially divisive vote in April.
After excessive turnover and turmoil in the district’s top post in recent years, it is imperative that the new superintendent be able to bring together our complex community to ensure that every student gets a high-quality education. The district is now terribly divided after several years of contentious political campaigns, painful budget decisions and the ‘leak’ of a plan to essentially halve the district between charter and district schools.
The superintendent search should rebuild trust. It is an opportunity for students, community members, teachers and district officials to join together to discuss their hopes and plans for LA schools and deliberate about essential qualities of leaders who would unify and strengthen our community. The process of public discussion to converge on a shared choice will be critical to collective commitment and good will.
Instead, the board recently decided to charge ahead and select a superintendent in a few short weeks with virtually no public input. This sprint is unlikely to build broad-based support and could undermine the ability of a new superintendent to lead effectively.
Complicating and destabilizing this process is the legal cloud over District 5 Board Member Ref Rodriguez, who faces multiple possible felony charges, yet rejected appeals by his three board allies to take a leave of absence. Rodriguez could well be decisive in a fragile 4-3 superintendent vote. Should the district attorney decide to take action against Rodriguez, where would that leave the board? What prospective candidate would accept the superintendency with such precarious support? Indeed, many strong and well-suited leaders would balk at competing for the position under such circumstances.
There is a better way. According to reports from the Council of Great City Schools, California School Boards Association and superintendent search processes in large urban districts across the country, best practices for superintendent searches include:
- Convene an external search committee.
- Contract with an experienced search firm.
- With extensive community input, develop a leadership profile of “Desired Characteristics of a New Superintendent”.
- Communicate actively with all parents, teachers and school and community leaders.
- Optimize public engagement as much as practical in the review of finalists.
Districts across the country have learned that building community confidence in the integrity and transparency of the process is critical to successful superintendent hiring. Meaningful public engagement serves to forge both “Desired Characteristics of a New Superintendent” and a common board agenda going forward.
Los Angeles Unified has engaged only one of these best practices (contracting with an experienced search firm) and is proceeding with no meaningful transparency or public engagement. The district posted search information only on hard-to-find web pages, not linked to the Los Angeles Unified or board homepages. The posted criteria for the superintendent are so broad and unrefined that they offer no guidance about the decision-making process nor deep understanding of the challenges and best practices of educating diverse student populations in large urban districts.
The district may point to the 2015 stakeholder survey conducted when it recruited Michelle King. Yet, education and politics have changed dramatically. The next superintendent must grapple with a new federal accountability system, a U.S. Secretary of Education hostile to public education, serious threats to immigrant families and many other emerging challenges.
To hire a new superintendent without a transparent public engagement process that addresses new education realities would be grossly irresponsible and ill-advised.
The board has a choice: rush ahead without transparency and community involvement, or slow down and redesign the process to include students, parents, teachers, principals and community leaders. The latter approach is more likely to attract a superintendent who enjoys widespread support, achieving a unanimous board vote or a solid supermajority.
This is the only way to create unity out of division and provide the mandate that the new superintendent will need. A potent superintendent supported by a unified board and an engaged community can lead Los Angeles’ next chapter, where every child across our diverse communities experiences a great education.
John Rogers is professor of education at UCLA and director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access. Donald Cohen is Executive Director of In the Public Interest, a national research and policy center.
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