Does Los Angeles Unified’s powerful school board contribute to leadership turnover?

November 17, 2021

Los Angeles Unified interim Superintendent Megan K. Reilly, right, and School Board member Kelly Gonez, left, help Normont Early Education Center student Natalia Castillo as School Board Members and special guests celebrate the first day of in class instruction on Aug. 16, 2021.

As Los Angeles Unified begins interviewing candidates for yet another superintendent, it must face a tough question: Has its unusual board governing structure blurred the lines between board member and superintendent and contributed to the steady churn in district leadership?

The seven board members, each representing a different geographic area of the massive district, work full time and earn a salary of $125,000. Each member has a staff of five or more, along with other perks and supports that have resulted in what is in effect a parallel power structure in the district.

Cost to the district: at least $10 million a year.

This board arrangement in L.A. is unlike any other. No other school board in the country pays its members anything close to that amount, including the nation’s largest, or provides them their own staff to boot.

Having such a powerful board makes the district especially vulnerable to the endemic tensions between superintendents and their boards, a major reason for leadership turnover.

The last one to leave was Austin Beutner, who resigned in June after only three years on the job. He was the district’s sixth “permanent” superintendent of the district in 20 years, in addition to three interim ones. The district is now being run by interim Superintendent Megan Reilly, the previous head of business services and operations.

“The governance structure in L.A. contributes to turnover because it violates all the classic principles of organizational theory,” said Carl Cohn, the former veteran school superintendent in nearby Long Beach and San Diego.

“What you have, in my judgment, is eight superintendents of schools in the district,” said Cohn, who was the founding director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence and mentors superintendents around the state.

Impact of the board on superintendent turnover

The extent to which the structure of the board contributes to superintendent turnover has significant implications for the 575,000 students in the district, serving 1 in 10 public school students in California. Without stable leadership in a district, it is more difficult to advance reforms and make them stick, and that, research shows, can have an impact on student achievement.

Los Angeles voted to do away with electing at-large board members in 1978, based on the view that having them represent seven smaller regions would enhance democratic participation.

“While the board is there as the voice of the community and to make sure that community concerns are being addressed, there’s a tendency in L.A. for the board role to go beyond that and for members to see themselves as being responsive to their individual districts,” USC Rossier School of Education Dean Pedro Noguera said.

That “can create the potential for conflict and instability in leadership,” he said. “If you look at the large urban districts that make the most progress, it is because they have stable leadership, period.”

When Beutner announced his resignation last April, he said in an interview with The Imprint that while the board structure was not a factor in the timing of his decision to step down, he said, “It is a factor for anyone who is superintendent in L.A. Unified.”

“The setup was dysfunctional in terms of both governing the district and improving student achievement,” said former Superintendent John Deasy in 2014 after only 3½ years in the district.

Board members who work full time are likely to be more knowledgeable than the average board member and should be more responsive to their constituents, said Dan Schnur, a longtime commentator on L.A. politics who teaches political communications at USC and UC Berkeley.

However, that can be a “mixed bag,” he said. “They (board members) may be more informed meddlers, but also more determined meddlers.”

Board President Kelly Gonez disputes the charge that the board structure accelerates leadership changes, noting that superintendent turnover is a fact of life in many large districts. “The role of the superintendent is obviously a challenging one in any large urban district, and especially so during the pandemic,” she said. “We always work really closely with the superintendent and local district leaders to promote alignment and ensure that we’re working in support of their efforts.”

As for board members’ staffs, she said, “I really view them as being additive to the existing work of the district.”

She pointed out that the part of the district she represents encompasses 125 schools, 90,000 students, and over 300,000 registered voters, a similar size to those of other board members’ local districts. That, she insists, makes it necessary for board members to get a salary to do the job full time and to do it well.

In addition, being paid a full-time salary also makes it more appealing for younger people and those who are not independently wealthy to run for the board, contributing to its diversity, said 37-year-old Tanya Ortiz Franklin, the newest board member. In fact, three of the most recent board members are all in their thirties. Gonez, its president, was elected when she was just 32. Two are Latinas.

“Honestly, I don’t think I would have considered the role at the previous salary because I went to law school. I have student loans,” Franklin said. “I’m super grateful that it’s paid $125,000, and we have benefits.”

Paying board members a ‘living wage’

It was only in 2017 that board salaries were raised to a level where board members could more comfortably work in a full-time capacity. Salaries for board members with no other outside employment leaped from about $45,000 to $125,000.

The big pay increase was not initiated by the board, but was the result of a recommendation by a compensation committee made up of members appointed by local officials outside the district, including the mayor.

Several board members draw their salary, in addition to public employee pensions they have previously earned from their service either as employees in the district or other public agencies.

At least one recent superintendent change was beyond anyone’s control. In 2017, Michelle King, the district’s first “homegrown” superintendent in two decades, had to step down for medical reasons less than two years into the job. At age 57, she died from a brain tumor in 2019.

David Rattray, president and CEO of UNITE-LA, an organization focused on improving student outcomes, still laments King’s death as a great loss to the district. But Beutner’s departure, he said, gives the board a chance to look at its role and how to build in longer-term stability in district leadership than in the recent past.

“They should be thinking about how to conduct the search and how to position the next superintendent for long-term success,” Rattray said. “It should be what they do in the next six months: pick a terrific person, support them and then get out of the way.”

Board has numerous supports and perks

In addition to their full-time salaries, their own staff, a car allowance and health benefits, the board has numerous other supports that set it apart.

For example, the board has a “secretariat” made up of a half dozen staffers responsible for the day-to-day administration.

The board also has its own six-person research arm, the Independent Analysis Unit. The unit reports to the board rather than the superintendent, as does the district’s 54-person Office of the Inspector General. This year, the district says it is spending $8.1 million just on the salaries of board members and staff. That’s in addition to the $1.1 million in this year’s budget for “board member discretionary expenses.” The district also spends about $800,000 on the secretariat and $1.2 million on the research unit.

Board members are also allocated funds each year from school construction bonds to underwrite projects in their regions that they recommend for approval to the full board. Their recommendations are routinely approved without any discussion.

Supporters of the current setup say that’s a tiny bite out of the district’s massive $13 billion budget, and a small price to pay to have a more informed board, which allows them to more effectively serve their constituents.

But critics point to various ways in which the creation of this dual power structure gets in the way of effective administration of the district.

Senior staff, for example, often feel they have to maintain good relations with board members and the six local district superintendents who oversee six different areas of the district whom they know based on history are likely to be around far longer than the districtwide superintendent.

“When you talk to administrators seeking promotion and advancement, they always talk about having to be in the good graces of their superiors as represented by the superintendent, but they are also fretting whether they have offended a board member or staff from that area,” Cohn said. “And that is beyond the pale in terms of the proper running of an organization.”

Board members too often influence decisions regarding hiring or promotion of principals and other school personnel in their regions, or make decisions regarding closing or consolidating schools even more challenging than they are already. “These are really important decisions that should not be politicized,” said USC’s Noguera.

Making the board structure work  

Mónica García, the longest-serving board member who has twice been its president, said being able to work effectively with the board comes with the territory. “If a superintendent does not know how to manage board members and board staff, that’s about their ability to do their job,” she said.

“Does the board make it more challenging?” she asked. “Absolutely.  Does it make the job harder? Absolutely.  Does it require a strategy?  Absolutely. Have I seen it done well? Absolutely.”

Cohn said the onus is on the board rather than the superintendent to make the system work. “The burden of proof for this organizational arrangement rests with the seven people on the board,” he said.

Former superintendents say that what is crucially important is for the board to clarify its role, and that of the superintendent, ideally at the time a new superintendent is hired.

Board President Gonez points out that last spring she sponsored a series of workshops for the board to come up with a “unified agenda” that spells out shared goals for student outcomes over the next five years.

Rather than each board member having his or her own priorities, Gonez said, the purpose was to be “really clear as a group about what the priorities are for the district, the main areas of focus, especially during really challenging times like the one we’re in.”

But it is noteworthy that the exercise was undertaken at the initiative of the board, and not of the now-departed Superintendent Beutner.

In a document outlining the board’s goals, a section titled “board guardrails” made no mention of what the board could or should be doing to support the next superintendent.

Instead, it emphasized what the superintendent must do to achieve the board’s goals.

What impact the board’s latest exercise will have on the next superintendent’s tenure is impossible to predict.

Regardless, the effort must be made to ensure greater longevity in district leadership, said communications professor Schnur. “If you have people of good will who want to work together, they will find a way,” he said. “If that is not their attitude, neither a full-time nor part-time board will accomplish a great deal.”

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