After Los Angeles Unified superintendent Michelle King announced last week that she would not be returning to her post for health reasons, one of the big questions facing the elected school board is whether it will turn to another insider to lead the district, or whether it will look beyond its borders for someone to replace her.
If the board were to stick to the insider strategy, it would be following the playbook of by far the majority of California’s 30 largest districts that in recent years have hired someone as a superintendent who was intimately familiar with the district, either because they were a current administrator, had previously worked in the district, or grew up in the area and went to school there.
When the board selected King exactly two years ago, it hoped that her deep ties to the district itself would help bring some stability to the churn in its top leadership.
The board had just got through a stormy leadership battle with John Deasy, and then turned to former superintendent Ray Cortines, who returned to the district at the age of 82, as a stopgap measure.
King not only attended schools in the district, but she spent her entire professional career in the district as a teacher and administrator.
That plan has been subverted not due to the typical reasons superintendents leave unexpectedly — such as conflicts with an elected board or teachers unions, or being recruited for a higher paying or more prestigious job elsewhere — but for reasons the board could not have anticipated or controlled.
One obvious successor to King is the current interim superintendent Vivian Ekchian, who has a similar pedigree to her former boss. She has worked in the districts for decades, beginning as a teacher in 1985, and subsequently serving in a variety of roles, including chief human resources officer, labor negotiator and local district superintendent.
Another name that has been floated is Matt Hill who, while not an insider like Ekchian, did work for the district for four years between 2011 and 2015. He is now superintendent of the adjoining Burbank Unified School District.
What seems clear is that boards are increasingly turning to insider candidates, at least in part as an antidote to the revolving door at the superintendent’s office. Of the 16 superintendents in the state’s largest 30 districts who have been appointed in 2016 and 2017, only five had no prior ties to the district, according to an EdSource review. Of the six appointed in 2014 and 2015, only one was completely new to the district.
According to a 2014 Council of Great City Schools survey (the most recent one available), the average tenure of a superintendent in large urban districts was just over three years. California districts have not been immune from these often sudden shifts in their top leadership.
Only one of the superintendents in the state’s 30 largest districts — Chris Steinhauser in Long Beach — has been in the position for more than 10 years. With 15 years in his post, he is positively Neanderthal in terms of his longevity compared to other districts. Steinhauser also attended his district’s schools as a student, and then returned for a decades-long stint as a teacher and administrator.
Hiring insider candidates is based at least in part on the notion that someone who has deep roots in a district or knows it well has a better chance of succeeding by having an intuitive knowledge of the district, its potential and its pitfalls — and will be less likely to leave, if only because there will be fewer surprises and therefore less stress. Such home-grown superintendents may also be more loyal to the district because they have enduring familial ties, as well as close friendships in the area.
On the other hand, being an insider can have its disadvantages. It could make it more difficult to shake up district leadership if the targets of the shakeup are people the new superintendent knows or has worked with for years. Unlike an outsider, it’s also not assured that someone who has risen up through the ranks will bring fresh ideas, perspectives or experiences to the table.
If there was a criticism of King’s tenure, it was along the lines that she did not make waves, and had not stirred things up enough in the district to bring about the kind of change that the district urgently needs.
One factor that could influence the selection of her successor is that last spring a new board majority was elected in the most expensive school board race in U.S. history, driven by multi-million dollar donations from wealthy charter school backers like Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings and counter-contributions from teachers and other public employee unions.
But newly elected boards typically like to select their own superintendents, and now that King has voluntarily left her post the board majority might seize the opportunity to do so instead of just confirming acting superintendent Ekchian. King tapped Ekchian to fill in for her when she went on leave last October. The new board majority could be expected to hire someone they themselves selected, and is also more solidly in the charter school camp than King was, even though she received praise from charter advocates for her even-handed approach to conflicts that arose during her short tenure.
The board majority could turn to someone who is neither a total insider nor a total outsider, and would also be likely to get the approval of its pro-charter backers. Burbank’s Hill fits that bill. But given the size of Los Angeles’ payroll, there are many educators who worked at one time in the district and are now in top positions elsewhere, such as Boston school superintendent Tommy Chang.
By hiring someone with that kind of background, the board could have the best of both worlds — bringing in someone with deep knowledge of the district, but also who would bring in perspectives after having worked elsewhere, and would see the district through different lenses.
At the same time, in its relatively recent history LA’s board has not been afraid to go outside the district, even selecting a former governor (Colorado’s Roy Romer in 2001) and a retired vice-admiral (David Brewer in 2006) who were completely new to the district.
But with so many insiders being hired as superintendents — by EdSource’s count only 10 of the leaders in the state’s largest 30 districts were complete outsiders — California is in effect in the middle of an uncontrolled experiment in school leadership. Will insider superintendents exceed the average tenure of their peers nationally? Or will the many other factors that push out superintendents outweigh any advantages that being an insider brings? Because most of them were recently appointed, it will be years before those questions will be definitively answered.
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