Superintendents Dismissed in Los Angeles, Atlanta

By Peter Schmidt — August 01, 1990 4 min read

Following a rapid sequence of moves last month, the nation’s second-largest school district has a new superintendent.

The board of the Los Angeles Unified School District voted July 16 to buy out the contract of Superintendent of Schools Leonard M. Britton and replace him with his deputy, William R. Anton.

The action came just four days after Mr. Britton, who has faced a range of problems in the fast-growing district, announced he would leave the post when his contract expired in June 1991.

The Los Angeles shakeup followed by one week the ouster of another prominent big-city superintendent: J. Jerome Harris of Atlanta. The Atlanta school board, citing a lack of “mutual trust and cooperation,” voted to dismiss Mr. Harris but continue paying his salary until 1992.

The District of Columbia schools chief, meanwhile, has withstood an attempt to force him from office a year early. But the school board there will begin a search for a replacement for Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins, whose contract expires in 1991.

Hispanic Leadership

The sudden elevation of Mr. Anton in Los Angeles puts both of the country’s two largest school districts under the leadership of Hispanic Americans. Mr. Anton, who district officials say is the first Hispanic superintendent of Los Angeles schools in this century, joins Joseph A. Fernandez, the schools chancellor in New York City.

The ousted chief, Mr. Britton, who previously served as superintendent in Dade County, Fla., had run into rocky times during his three-year tenure in Los Angeles. He was asked to cope with severe budget deficits and overcrowding in the 610,000-student system, where a third of the pupils are limited-English-proficient.

Although the board last year extended his contract, set to expire in June 1990, by one year in a show of support after he weathered a divisive 11-day teachers’ strike, Mr. Britton’s performance had come under fire in recent months.

Leticia Quezada, a Hispanic board member, and Rita Walters, the board’s only black member, frequently accused Mr. Britton of failing to respond adequately to the needs of the district’s minority children.

Board members also criticized him this past spring for what they said was a failure to provide them with enough options as they worked to close a $220-million gap in the 1991 budget.

Mr. Britton had announced in a July 12 letter to the board that he intended to leave “to consider other professional opportunities” when his contract expired.

After a 10-hour closed-door meeting, the board subsequently voted by 5 to 2 to buy out Mr. Britton’s contract, and by 6 to 1 to promote Mr. Anton, a 38-year veteran of teaching and administrative positions in the district.

Mark D. Slavkin, a member of the board, said he had approved the buyout because of Mr. Britton’s letter. “When you announce that you are leaving, I think that reduces your perceived influence and credibility,” he said.

But Ms. Quezada said she believed the board would have acted “with or without” Mr. Britton’s announcement.

The former superintendent will receive between $200,000 and $250,000 for the remaining year of pay and benefits in his contract, according to district officials. Mr. Anton, who was given a three-year contract, will receive Mr. Britton’s8current annual salary of $164,555.

Mr. Britton, who said he had not expected the buyout decision, told reporters he would seek a position enabling him to increase corporate involvement in education.

Harris’s Leadership Style

In Atlanta, Mr. Harris had aimed for quick improvements with a controversial “top-down” management style that strained his relationships with board members and the community. (See Education Week, May 3, 1989.)

The Atlanta board issued a statement upon Mr. Harris’s dismissal on July 9 saying it regretted the action but had concluded that “a change in leadership must be made.”

“During the period of nearly two years while Dr. Harris has been superintendent,” the statement said, “the school system has not had the sense of teamwork which is necessary to achieve sustained progress.”

A spokesman for the district said Mr. Harris will continue to receive his $112,500-a-year salary until his contract expires in 1992.

Lester W. Butts, a special assistant to Mr. Harris and the principal of Douglass High School, was named interim superintendent.

Among other points of friction during Mr. Harris’s tenure, he was officially reprimanded by the board late last year for allowing his temporary state certification to lapse and for not disclosing plagiarism allegations against one of his top aides. Earlier this year, the board also began questioning his expenditures on consulting fees.

Mr. Harris said in a statement that he had “never wavered or compromised” in his commitment to provide a high-quality education to all Atlanta students. He said he had made significant progress in raising student test scores, lowering teacher absenteeism, and improving the maintenance and management of schools.

Search for New D.C. Chief

In Washington, Superintendent Jenkins mustered enough community support last month to stave off attempts by some members of the school board to force his resignation. Mr. Jenkins, a veteran of the District of Columbia school system who took over the helm there two years ago, will retain his post until his contract expires next June.

The schools chief has been criticized for what some see as shortcomings in his management style. He also faced an embarrassing flap earlier this year over discrepancies in the system’s enrollment figures. (See Education Week, June 20, 1990.)

The president of the school board, Nate Bush, said the search for a replacement would not get under way until after the start of the school year.

Staff Writer Karen Diegmueller contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1990 edition of Education Week as Superintendents Dismissed in Los Angeles, Atlanta