L.A. Board Names CEO With Broad Powers

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The Los Angeles school board last week shifted oversight of the nation's second-largest school system from Superintendent Ruben Zacarias to a newly appointed chief executive officer, former school board member Howard B. Miller.

Mr. Zacarias' supporters were stunned by the move, which divided the seven-member school board. The 4-2 vote, with one abstention, on Oct. 12 followed a scathing report last month that detailed serious oversight problems in the construction of a $200 million high school that may never open. The report named Mr. Zacarias as one of the district administrators responsible.

The move also comes just months after three new school board members and one who was re-elected--all backed by Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan--took office with promises to improve chronic problems in the 700,000-student system and usher in a new era of accountability. The three new members all voted for last week's shakeup.

Ruben Zacarias

Mr. Zacarias, who learned of the new position just a day before the school board's vote, did not return calls seeking comment last week.

But after an Oct. 13 meeting with Mr. Miller, a prominent local real estate lawyer who served on the school board from 1976 to 1979, the superintendent indicated that he would not easily cede his authority.

"There is only one superintendent in charge of this district, and you're looking at him," Mr. Zacarias told The Associated Press. "Mr. Miller does report to me. He takes direction from me."

In announcing the management shakeup, school board President Genethia Hayes said that Mr. Miller would report to Mr. Zacarias, but that "all other departments, divisions, and units of every kind ... will report to Mr. Miller as CEO and no one else, and will be under his complete authority."

She said the new appointment, which places the district's $7 billion budget in Mr. Miller's hands, was effective immediately and would continue at least through June 30 of next year.

As early as this week, Ms. Hayes said, Mr. Miller would assemble a crisis-management team and perform a "top to bottom" review of the district and its management.

White Elephant

The September report on the half-finished high school, the Belmont Learning Complex--issued by the district's director of internal audits and special investigations, accuses several contractors, school employees, and former school board members of negligence and malfeasance.

The 35-acre school site is an abandoned oil field laden with environmental hazards, including methane and benzene, according to a recent state environmental assessment.

Even unfinished, it is the most expensive public school ever built in the United States.

Among district employees cited for negligence in the report was Mr. Zacarias, who, the report said, failed "to supervise the Belmont project in a diligent, professional, and effective manner." ("L.A. District Sues Its Lawyers Over Belmont," Sept. 29, 1999.)

Mr. Zacarias, 70, was the deputy superintendent when the school board approved the project in early 1997. He was named superintendent that summer.

One of the final acts of the old school board in June was extending Mr. Zacarias' contract one year, through June 2001. His former contract was set to expire next July.

Over the summer, Mr. Zacarias invited the new school board to evaluate his job performance this winter and said that if members were not satisfied with his performance, he would step down from the $188,000-a-year post.

Given the board's latest actions, it was not clear last week whether that offer was still good.

'Broken' System

In the meantime, say critics of both the school board and Mr. Zacarias, huge problems remain, including many that go much deeper than troubles with top management.

"We have kids without teachers, teachers without classrooms, and a district without a clue," said Day Higuchi, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a 41,000-member joint affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. "The system is broken. Students and teachers are a forgotten priority here.

"I don't care who is running the show," Mr. Higuchi added, "as long as the show starts running."

Vol. 19, Issue 8, Page 3

Published in Print: October 20, 1999, as L.A. Board Names CEO With Broad Powers
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