The leadership stalemate in the Los Angeles Unified School District came to an abrupt close late last week, when the school board voted unanimously to end Superintendent Ruben Zacarias’ tenure and fill the post temporarily with former New York City Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines.
The seven-member panel voted Nov. 4 to pay Mr. Zacarias $750,000 to step down Jan. 15. The payment is believed to be among the largest buyout packages ever for a superintendent. Mr. Zacarias, who had 18 months remaining on his contract and earns $188,000 a year, agreed to the deal.
Mr. Cortines will join the district immediately and serve initially as an adviser to Mr. Zacarias and the 700,000-student district’s new chief operating officer, Howard B. Miller, according to the Los Angeles Times. He will begin serving as interim superintendent after Mr. Zacarias departs and until a permanent replacement is named.
The school board voted 4-3 last month to begin negotiating a buyout of Mr. Zacarias’ contract and had been wooing Mr. Cortines, 67, who now heads the Pew Network for Standards-Based Reform at Stanford University, even before that vote.
Reaction around the district last Friday morning was a mixture of surprise at the board’s decisiveness and cautious hope that new leadership will bring changes to the nation’s second-largest school system.
“I’m pleased to have some closure,’' said Mark Slavkin, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, a business-backed education reform group. “I think they’ve reached a good solution that will make for an orderly transition. And I think Cortines’ vision for teaching and learning will complement Howard Miller’s, who is a good lawyer and a strong administrator and is politically smart.’'
“I’m not going to do handsprings because they bought out the superintendent for $750,000,’' said John Perez, a vice president of United Teachers Los Angeles, an affiliate of both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. “I’m going to reserve judgment. What happens in the next six to nine months will tell us’’ whether the new leadership can make good on its promises, he said.
Mr. Zacarias, 70, has been under fire since September, when the district director of internal audits released a report detailing the missteps involved in the construction of the Belmont Learning Complex. The half- built, $200 million-plus high school sits on an abandoned oil field that is laden with environmental hazards. Among other district leaders, Mr. Zacarias was cited in the report for his failure to “supervise the Belmont project in a diligent, professional, and effective manner.’'
The board will decide later this month whether to move ahead with construction or abandon the project altogether.
Last month, the school board surprised many in the district, including Mr. Zacarias, by naming Mr. Miller, a real estate lawyer and former school board member, to the newly created post of chief operating officer. Although Mr. Miller was officially working for Mr. Zacarias, the appointment gave him broad authority over the district. Soon after, the board voted to proceed with a buyout of Mr. Zacarias’ contract. (“School Board Votes To Buy Out L.A. Superintendent’s Contract,” Nov. 3, 1999.)
Meanwhile, thousands of the district’s teachers picketed before and after school last week to demand higher salaries and protest what they say are unfair working conditions. The teachers wore buttons that read, “Teachers & Kids: the Missing Priority,’' according to utla President Day Higuchi.
Teacher shortages in the district, combined with the number of teachers with emergency credentials and a widespread lack of classroom space and supplies, have caused many of the district’s 40,000 teachers to become “overworked and overwhelmed,’' Mr. Higuchi said.
A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as Cortines Accepts Interim Superintendent Post in L.A.