Mikhail Zinshteyn / EdSource
The Los Angeles Unified school board room in the district's downtown headquarters.

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As the Los Angeles Unified School District searches for a superintendent for the fourth time in the past decade, many are wondering who is qualified to run a 710-square-mile district with a student population approximately the size of Wyoming – and who would want to.

Austin Beutner stepped down in June after three years leading the district. Board members are aiming to hire a replacement as soon as January, an ambitious timeline that comes as most of the nation’s largest districts — including New York, Chicago and San Diego — are also searching for chiefs.

Los Angeles superintendents have rarely stuck around more than two or three years since 1990, leading to constant leadership changes and questions about how to run an unwieldy district.

“I think it takes a rare person who’s going to want to step into this job with all the challenges they face,” said Julie Marsh, a professor of education policy at the University of Southern California.

Consider the sheer numbers:

  • More than 1,400 schools and centers
  • More than 417,000 non-charter K-12 students, more than 77% of whom are Latino and 82% low-income
  • 73,000 employees
  • A $20 billion budget (although pandemic relief funds have swelled that number far beyond the usual $8 billion or so)

“It’s bigger than just a one-person job,” said Joseph Bishop, who directs UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools. “I think we might need to rethink the governance structure altogether. It’s a massive undertaking for even the most skilled educator, and it’s way too important to rely on one person.”

“There is always this expectation that when a person comes in they’re going to do absolutely everything. There has to be a different mindset.”

It’s unclear whether the district has the stomach to change to better accommodate a new superintendent. Several district leaders declined to answer questions about the slew of challenges facing LAUSD and what it would take to get the right superintendent.

No matter whom the district chooses, the responsibility of running the district would be shared with other district administrators, said board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin.

“The great news is it’s a team,” she said. “It’s the right person at the top and the right combination of leadership.”

Managing the pandemic

Among the new leader’s most important challenges will be how to weather the pandemic. Los Angeles students in August started on-campus classes for the first time in more than a year; 6,500 of them missed time the first week of school because of exposure to Covid-19, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Aside from the public health implications of squeezing hundreds of thousands of students, teachers and other employees into campuses, the new superintendent will need to be ready to help students and staff members heal from the trauma of the past two years, Marsh said.

“When I think about the pandemic and the academic recovery people are calling for,” she said, “the social, mental health needs of students, not to mention adults, all the traumas, particularly for high-risk kids, those to me really call on leadership that attends to more than just managerial issues.”

LAUSD will also need to focus on its lowest-income families in coming months, said Maria Brenes, executive director of the advocacy group InnerCity Struggle, which works with families in heavily Latino eastern Los Angeles.

“The pandemic took such a toll on our highest-need communities,” she said. “There’s just an intersection of impact: health, safety, wellness and learning.”

Is LAUSD governable?

Even without a global pandemic, leading LAUSD is a massive task in a region with dramatic geographical, cultural and economic differences from school to school.

The district last year acknowledged those differences by establishing 44 “Communities of Schools,” each clustered around a neighborhood or city. Each cluster is overseen by administrators familiar with their region rather than by the central district office.

The concept is experimental for now, but the district funded the communities this year and board members hope it sticks around.

“I think the new superintendent needs to be on board with the board’s vision around that,” said board member Nick Melvoin.

But the Los Angeles superintendent’s vision will probably need to include a path out of the district’s dark financial woods.

Although this year’s $20 billion budget is massive — and significantly larger than any previous budget — a huge percentage of it is temporary pandemic relief funds rather than ongoing sources. The district has been in the red for years and expects the painful reality to return once the pandemic funding ends in the next couple of years.

“LA Unified has had and continues to have a structural deficit whereby in-year expenditures exceed in-year revenues,” administrators told board members in a June report. “As revenues continue to decrease due to enrollment decline, expenditures have not been reduced proportionately.”

The district has lost 250,000 students since its 2002 peak, and some worry the pandemic will exacerbate the decline, which in turn would deepen the budget deficit.

“After 2024, unless the district can increase enrollment, it’s going to be another big cost-cutting challenge,” Bishop said. “At the end of the day, they have to increase enrollment. It’s a competitive market and everybody’s competing for students.”

Serving the students

Even if the district can find a way to attract students who increasingly are choosing other educational options or moving out of the city, the new superintendent will face unprecedented challenges educating them.

The year-plus away from the classroom has set back academic progress dramatically, Marsh said. It will take time to reacquaint them with school and get them back on track, she said.

“We’ve been so concerned, and rightly so, with getting kids fed and to safety,” Marsh said. “But now we need to be thinking about how we’re supporting kids. That’s where the energy should be: addressing the relationships we need to be repairing.”

But teaching is just part of those repairs. Black and Latino students and their families spent a year protesting LAUSD’s use of campus police, leading the school board to divert funds from the department’s budget this year.

And a March survey by the group Speak Up found deep reservations among Black parents about sending their children back to school. Parents said they were concerned about bullying, racism and low academic standards for Black students.

A district leader will need to grapple with racial issues, said Joseph Williams, operations director at the advocacy group Students Deserve.

“There’s definitely some folks in the community who are concerned about what a new superintendent’s tenure will look like if we don’t address some of these issues,” Williams said. “We need to make sure the new superintendent has a history of working in public education and has a history of working with Black communities to address systemic racism.”

The district needs a person of color in the top role, said Brenes, of InnerCity Struggle. She suggested the board use as an example the late Michelle King, the first Black woman to serve as LAUSD superintendent. King died of cancer in 2019, a year and a half after taking medical leave.

Hiring a woman of color would show parents the district is serious about addressing their concerns, Brenes said.

“I would lift her up as an example of some of those critical components being embodied in a superintendent,” she said. “It’s important to address hearts and minds. It all intersects.”

LAUSD announced Monday it would hold listening sessions and focus groups starting this month in the hope of hiring someone by the winter.

Previous superintendents’ backgrounds have run the gamut from teachers to governors. Beutner was an investment banker, newspaper publisher and politician before taking the reins, and Melvoin said the district could use a change.

“Our previous superintendent was more of a nontraditional candidate,” Melvoin said. “I’m interested in someone with more of an educational background.”

This story was corrected to report that LAUSD has 44 Communities of Schools.

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