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L.A. Board Urged To Name Latino to Top Job

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The Los Angeles school board resisted heavy pressure last week that it immediately name the district's top Latino administrator as its next superintendent.

The board held two closed-door sessions to discuss the process for replacing Superintendent Sidney A. Thompson, who said last month that he would retire when his contract expires in June 1997.

The decision by Mr. Thompson, who is 64, to end his 40-year career in the nation's second-largest school district sparked calls from community activists that the board immediately name Ruben Zacharias, the district's deputy superintendent, to the post.

Both men were deputy superintendents under William R. Anton, the district's first Latino superintendent. When Mr. Anton resigned in 1992, Mr. Thompson, who is black, became interim superintendent. The next year, he was permanently appointed to head the 650,000-student district, which is now 70 percent Latino.

Mark Slavkin, the school board president, said last week he strongly favors "an open and competitive process" to pick the next superintendent. It has been nearly a decade since the city last conducted a national search for a superintendent.

In a statement issued after the second board meeting, Mr. Slavkin said the board would meet again soon to discuss its future policy direction and priorities, the qualities it will seek in a new superintendent, and the selection process.

Board members came under fire from city, state, and federal elected officials, as well as from community activists and parent leaders, to quickly name Mr. Zacharias. "That lobbying or pressure has been very aggressive, very urgent, and weighing heavily on minds of many board members," Mr. Slavkin said.

Effect on Reforms?

Mr. Zacharias, who is 66, told local newspapers that he appreciated the community's support, but requested an end to the pressure on board members.

The district was rife with rumors last week that Mr. Zacharias would be named to the post and that Mr. Thompson might be offered a buyout. Some Latino activists held a small protest outside district headquarters.

But Mr. Slavkin said the board had agreed that Mr. Thompson should serve out his contract.

Conducting a national search would not preclude the board from choosing Mr. Zacharias, Mr. Slavkin pointed out, and would bring more credibility than "a quick political deal."

"Because this district is so large, it has a tendency to be more internal-looking," he said. "It's sort of a world unto itself. People are not used to looking at other models, examples, and districts.

"Personally, I think it would be very healthy to look at other candidates."

The district is in the midst of a wide-ranging reform plan that calls for a shift of decisionmaking to individual schools.

Mike Roos, the president of LEARN--the community and business group that drew up the reform plan and is helping put it into practice--said the organization had not yet formally decided on the qualities it would like in the next superintendent.

But he urged that the new leader be fully committed to the decentralization effort, focus on engaging the community in reform, and pay close attention to professional development.

Helen Bernstein, the president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, said the board should chose a superintendent who can "save this district." She warned of the movement to break the sprawling district into smaller units. (See Education Week, Oct. 25, 1995.)

"The truth of the matter is that L.A. Unified is in big trouble because of accountability," Ms. Bernstein said. "Absolutely no one is held accountable."

Latino groups were planning to meet late last week to plot a strategy for keeping the heat on the board to name Mr. Zacharias.

The Spanish-speaking community is insulted by the calls for a national search, said Juan Jose Gutierrez, the executive director of the One Stop Immigration and Educational Center, a community-based organization that provides adult basic education.

The board did not conduct such a search when it named Mr. Thompson, he noted. "Our question is, 'Why the double standard?'"

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