With superintendent's departure, more turnover at the top of LAUSD

FILE - Vivian Ekchian (left), acting superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, conducts a press briefing alongside Austin Beutner, former L.A. Times publisher and head of an advisory task force for the district, on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017.
FILE - Vivian Ekchian (left), acting superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, conducts a press briefing alongside Austin Beutner, former L.A. Times publisher and head of an advisory task force for the district, on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

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In 2006, Roy Romer retired after more than six years as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District — a tenure widely credited with jump-starting a decade-long, city-wide school construction boom.

In the decade that's followed, the L.A. Unified superintendency has changed hands five times — most recently, on Friday, when Michelle King announced she would not return from medical leave and retire in June, leaving acting superintendent Vivian Ekchian at the helm. King has been receiving cancer treatment.

Since Romer retired in 2006, not one of his successors has lasted more than four years. Ramon Cortines came and left twice, serving a little more than three years combined. John Deasy served three-and-a-half years.

"It's an unfortunate normal," said David Tokofsky, a former L.A. Unified school board member who served with Romer.

And it is normal, especially in big-city school systems. A 2014 survey found the average superintendent in 53 urban school districts across the U.S. had been on the job for about three years.

"It's endemic to the enterprise," said Mark Slavkin, another former L.A. Unified board member, "and that raises questions about maybe [whether] the structure is broken."

It's possible to debate how much this level of turnover matters. On the one hand, research has shown the length of a superintendent's tenure has little relationship to student achievement. In L.A. Unified, though, the superintendent is not only directly responsible for 503,000 students' education, but also manages a $7.5 billion operating budget and heads L.A. County's second-largest employer.

Given these facts, turnover at the top is a problem, said Tokofsky. "It causes the troops to be confused as to what direction the organization is going."

While King is leaving the post for health reasons, Katie Braude, executive director of a reform-leaning parent group called Speak Up, said she believes politics play a role in the broader trend of superintendent turnover in L.A.

In New York and Chicago, the schools are effectively under mayoral control. L.A. Unified is the largest district in the U.S. controlled by an elected board.

Braude said she believes prior to the 2017 seating of newly-elected board members Nick Melvoin (whom her organization supported) and Kelly Gonez, board members were micro-managing King "rather than giving her that authority to direct the district."

"I think the fact that it’s an elected board has contributed to this turnover," Braude said, "and to the difficulty to lead when the board does micromanage."

Slavkin agreed that while the end of every L.A. Unified superintendency has its own backstory, the role of the elected board is a common thread between them — and meddling board members can be aggravating to a superintendent.

"The tension," Slavkin said, "is borne of a blurred understanding of the role of the school board, and individual board members, versus the role of the superintendent."

Slavkin said past L.A. Unified board have successfully navigated relationships with superintendents, leading to long tenures. He was on the board that hired Sidney Thompson in 1992; in the last three decades, only Romer served longer than Thompson's five years as L.A. Unified superintendent.

Following King's announcement, the current board's plans are not yet clear. When asked whether L.A. Unified school board president Mónica García had any timeline in mind for naming King's permanent replacement, a spokesman pointed to the statement the board issued Friday, which simply said Ekchian will serve as acting superintendent for an indefinite period.

But if L.A. Unified is about to go on the market for its sixth superintendent in a decade, Slavkin worried another political factor may be making the job less desirable for applicants: the fractious debates between charter school groups and the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, that dominated last spring's school board elections.

"It’s a very attractive [job] where people feel like they can make a difference," he said. "I don't think that's gone away. I think that attraction is still there. The politics continue to be intensified, in this us-against-them charter school-versus-UTLA — and I think that’s going to be a barrier."

"If there was a search tomorrow," Slavkin continued, "that sense of having to choose teams, and walking into a politically-charged environment, where the board and the community seem to be divided as acutely as they are … 'If I'm the new superintendent, do I have strong backing?'"

L.A. Unified board members are set to discuss the superintendent during a closed door meeting on Tuesday.