Veteran L.A. Educator To Succeed Thompson

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Los Angeles

It was Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican holiday, and Ruben Zacarias had transformed a small kitchen off his office into a smorgasbord of spicy specialities for the occasion.

Before he could grab a bite himself, however, the newly named superintendent of the Los Angeles schools had to clear a space among the congratulatory floral arrangements that had been overrunning his office all morning.

As a native Angeleno with 31 years of working for the school system, Mr. Zacarias has no lack of friends in a district where two of every three students share his Hispanic heritage. But while his supporters say that insider status is among his greatest assets, others worry that it will dampen his enthusiasm for the kind of shake-up they believe is sorely needed in the nation's second-largest school district.

Mr. Zacarias, who was appointed May 2 to succeed Sidney A. Thompson upon his retirement in June, is doing his best to dispel that perception. Immediately after a divided school board voted 5-2 to promote him from his current No. 2 job, he vowed to put the district's 100 worst-performing schools on notice that heads could roll unless the achievement picture improved in short order.

Mr. Zacarias also promised to appoint a business czar to look after money matters so that he can focus on improving instruction.

"People are fed up with what they see as poor student achievement," he said in a May 5 interview. "Our responsibility is to show parents and taxpayers that we can provide a quality education for the children."

Pressure Is On

In promising to push for better performance, the 68-year-old administrator is responding to pressures both inside and outside the district power structure.

School board members who agree on little else say accountability must become the watchword in a system with test scores well below national averages.

The high-profile reform group LEARN, or Los Angeles Alliance for Restructuring Now, made Mr. Zacarias' life difficult during the school board's superintendent search as it maintained a drumbeat for a reform-minded leader.

And the long-simmering campaign to break up the massive 670,000-student district gained momentum recently with the unveiling of a plan to siphon off nearly 200,000 students to form two independent districts in the San Fernando Valley. ("Plan To Lop Off 200,000 Students From L.A. Unveiled," April 16, 1997.)

Despite these pressures, however, Mr. Zacarias is in the enviable position of coming on board following last month's approval by voters of a $2.4 billion bond issue for school repairs and construction.

Since Mr. Thompson announced his retirement a year ago, Mr. Zacarias has had the inside track to succeed him.

Some board members and Hispanic activists mounted a strenuous campaign last spring for his immediate appointment. But a majority of board members--largely in response to pressure from LEARN--agreed to a national search that yielded two other finalists this spring.

One of them, Daniel A. Domenech, pulled out late last month as it appeared that Mr. Zacarias' support on the board was insurmountable. Mr. Domenech, a regional superintendent in Suffolk County, N.Y., remained the favorite of board President Jeff Horton, who joined outgoing board member Mark Slavkin in voting against Mr. Zacarias.

Mr. Slavkin supported the other finalist, William E.B. Siart, a banking executive from Los Angeles who sought the job as a noneducator with the management skills needed to streamline the bureaucracy and straighten out failing schools.

Search Ruffles Feathers

By exposing divisions in the district, the yearlong selection process created hard feelings and complaints from several quarters.

Some critics asserted that the strong board sentiment in favor of an insider deterred many qualified outsiders from applying.

Others contended that ethnic politics had unduly intruded on the process, to the point that the Spanish-speaking Mr. Domenech lost points because his roots were in Cuba rather than Mexico.

Allies of Mr. Zacarias, on the other hand, were galled not only that the board had launched an outside search, but also that it required the finalists to present their cases in a round of community forums last month.

But as the dust settled last week, some said that Mr. Zacarias was actually better off because of the process.

"Having had to compete in a very open way, Dr. Zacarias is stronger," said Mr. Slavkin, who is leaving the board next month.

Another plus, argued Mike Roos, the president and chief executive officer of LEARN, was that the competition brought the district public attention it would otherwise not have received.

"This has become a mega-community event," he said.

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