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Why Supe Selection Is Like Judging a Dog Show

Posted: 2006-05-29

The columnist concludes that the Los Angeles district "at this moment is a bigger beast than the toughest education careerist from, say, Boston or Philly, could tackle with success." But that doesn't mean he advocates asking Eli Broad for advice.


From the Los Angeles Times



May 29, 2006




By the end of this column I will have selected the next superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Because I believe that the children, parents, teachers and citizens of Los Angeles are entitled to transparency in such deliberations, I invite you to join me as I work my way toward a decision.



Let's start in a classroom at North Hollywood High School, where, in a scene reminiscent of "Blackboard Jungle," 28 young toughs have school board President Marlene Canter backed up against a projector screen.



These aren't physical toughs. They're intellectual toughs. But if I were Canter, I'd take the sneering, tattooed kind any day.



The board president is here as part of the district's sappy (or cynical) effort to make us all feel included in the most important choice any L.A. public body will make this decade: Who should replace departing Supt. Roy Romer?



As news cameras zoom and pan, the students in Tom Dunn's Advanced Placement U.S. history class take turns reading short passages from a district survey seeking the public's views on qualifications for the next superintendent. The students then click numbers on remote-control devices, ranking from 1 to 5 the importance of possible "skills, attributes, experiences, and accomplishments."



After each selection, a bar chart appears on the screen tallying the students' responses in 10 seconds flat (they don't think parents are important; they do think the next supe should watch where money goes).



Good teaching moment. Squishy management tool. Only the discussion afterward offers insight.



At one point, for instance, Canter fends off a student's polite question about why North Hollywood's campus is dirty by noting (accurately, from what I've seen) that it's one of the cleanest and safest campuses in the district.



The unanimous argh! says plenty.



So do the implications of a student's question about why classrooms don't have anything as high tech as the very cool clicker gadgets handed out by Canter and the five or six district staffers she has in tow.



But it's another student who nails what I've been thinking. Hiring the supe is the board's job, he notes. So shouldn't its members already have a pretty good sense of the qualifications?



The survey, Canter later assures me, is not the sop I'm making it out to be. It's democracy. And, she adds, not inaccurately, if the board were to act without public input, I'd slam it for that.



Headhunter Edward Hamilton, whom the district brought in to muscle through the selection, also tries hard to make me appreciate the process. In addition to the survey, he says, he will line up interviews with an unspecified number of "opinion leaders" selected for their diversity of viewpoints (Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald would not be able to pry the names or number from Hamilton ? I can't, anyway).



After these elites and the hoi polloi have had their say, the board will ruminate upon what it has learned, write a job description (why do I hear the words "must work well with people") and send it to several thousand potential candidates and folks who are likely to know good candidates.



The board members, meanwhile, have been fretting out another list of seven to nine people to put on a selection committee.



(I can only imagine the contortions in those closed door listing sessions, as board members debate whether Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, a law enforcement Latino, counts as a twofer; whether they should flatter cocky teachers union President A.J. Duffy by putting him on the interview list because, well, the union has been known to pay for board members' campaigns. And ? whoa, Nelly! ? shouldn't the mayor be on some list?)



Once selected, the selection committee (think a precisely calculated PC balance that includes a governor, a poverty-type, Henry Cisneros and the like) will sort through the applicant pool and name a handful of finalists. The board will choose the next supe from this pool. Unless they pick someone else.



It's like judging a dog show, Hamilton says. Winnowing will leave the board with a rarefied selection of different breeds (say, a Great Dane, a chow chow and a Chihuahua), each of which possesses a distinct mix of top-notch qualities. The board then selects Best of Show.



Hamilton is the guy who helped the district find Romer (Sheepdog? Collie?). Canter is sharp and well-meaning. I don't doubt these two when they say this is the way most big districts do things.



But non-educrats will see all that "process" as touchy-feely dithering by managers who've had too much contact with excessively empowered human resource departments.



Mr. Dunn and his AP students could sort through the array of viewpoints and come up with a pointed job description by Friday: "Candidate must have the rare leadership skills to make petty adults stop their self-absorbed squabbling and do whatever it takes to measurably improve every school in the district every day."



As a parent whose kids have put in a combined total of 32 years in L.A. Unified schools so far, I don't need a survey or a hush-hush interview with Eli Broad (just guessing) to understand the job or the sort of person who could do it.



I've listened to lots of people, including board members, who say it's critically important that the next superintendent be of a certain ethnicity, be an educator and/or be a district insider. I'm with those who think otherwise.



Brilliant people, including Ray Cortines, interim superintendent before Romer, say that there are highly qualified big city supes out there who could do the job.



I think he could do the job again (he says he's too old) but I worry that with mayoral takeover looming and Romer's successes on a fragile course, the district at this moment is a bigger beast than the toughest education careerist from, say, Boston or Philly, could tackle with success.



I keep hearing that longtime district survivors Bob Collins and Dan Isaacs are angling for the job. The names of former insiders and semi-insiders also come up, including Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) and Maria Casillas, of the respected Families in Schools.



Alas, I had to disqualify them all because of a formula I call the LAUSD IQ paradox: Anyone who has seen the superintendent's job close up and still wants it, by definition, can't be smart enough to handle it.



As proof, I offer you school district executive Kathi Littmann, who knows she's not ready for the job, in part because she's fought grueling battles to build schools in the district, witnessed firsthand the relative ease with which things get done in reality ? i.e. the private sector ? and because she recently completed a 10-month stint in the Broad Academy's intensely competitive program for prospective superintendents.



Littmann defines L.A. Unified as "Kafka-complex" and offers this description of the ideal candidate: "Someone without a life."



It was with all this "input" in mind that I finally convened my ad hoc winnowing committee of district parents ? a lawyer, an architect, a member of the school district clerical union, a guy whose job description none of us can figure out, and a nurse-turned-stay-at-home mom (my wife) ? at Villa Sombrero in Highland Park. By the second round of margaritas we had our choices.



Bob Hertzberg, who ran against Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa with a proposal to break up the district, came close to making the cut. But he lacks the national stature, the gravitas, to call in rhetorical air strikes the next time Duffy floats a 14% pay increase in contract negotiations, as he's doing now.



I thought about hiring Donald Trump, who has the "rock star" stature many argue is now required to resist political bullying. But Romer's weekly cable show is hammy enough. L.A. doesn't need the Donald cooking up some new ego-showcase ? much as I love the idea of him shouting "you're fired" to the next bureaucrat who rationalizes why bad teachers shouldn't be.



That left only three people in America who could possibly succeed at this nearly impossible assignment.



Condoleezza Rice is perfect. But the anti-Bush Westsiders would throw a tantrum, even though none of them have enrolled a child in public school since the '60s, when people of color first materialized on their campuses.



Bill Clinton could charismatize the district into excellence. But Valley conservatives would have hissy fits about that intern stuff. And Chelsea went to private schools, they'd scream.



So I've selected Colin Powell, a closet centrist of impeccable integrity (I trust that he believed in those WMD slides) to take charge of the school district.



I'll leave it to the board to finalize Powell's salary, benefits and vacation. To facilitate a quick transition, he can live rent-free in the mayor's vacant Mount Washington home.



Antonio didn't return my call on this. But I have no doubt that he, with his concern for education, fully supports the plan.



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To discuss this column or debate whether Colin Powell is the best choice for superintendent, visit http://www.latimes.com/schoolme.

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