The search for a new superintendent in Los Angeles picked up steam last week as the school board named three finalists and decided to let parents and teachers question them at open meetings.
The finalists for running the nation’s second-largest district are: Ruben Zacarias, the current deputy superintendent; William E.B. Siart, the former chief executive officer of First Interstate Bancorp in Los Angeles; and Daniel A. Domenech, the superintendent of a regional board that oversees 18 Suffolk County, N.Y., districts.
Some Hispanic activists view the unprecedented public forums as a dig at their favorite son, Mr. Zacarias, who has worked in the 667,000-student district since 1966 and was passed over for the top job in 1992. He would be the district’s first superintendent who speaks fluent Spanish.
Some of Mr. Zacarias’ backers are still bristling that the school board did not anoint him immediately after Superintendent Sidney A. Thompson announced last summer that he would retire.
“I’ve seen him getting parents involved in the process and inspiring students as he moved up the ladder,” said Alan Clayton, a director of the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Association. “He’s a home-grown product of the district. Why are we not moving him from number two to number one?”
Mr. Zacarias’ popularity among Hispanics was evident at a reception last month sponsored by the Latino caucus of the state legislature and a community group. Organizers billed the occasion as “a historic event to commend the highest-ranking Latino in the Los Angeles Unified School District.”
Meet the Candidates
School districts, particularly those with academic or financial problems, have been under increasing pressure to involve the public in the superintendent-selection process. In Boston, for example, Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant was interviewed during public hearings before he was hired away from the U.S. Department of Education in 1995.
Los Angeles school officials are planning three open meetings this month and eight invitation-only receptions to allow parents, teachers, community activists, and business leaders to meet the finalists.
“Our process will be awesome in its scope, and we hope it will set a culture and pattern for every major bureaucratic position in Los Angeles,” said Mike Roos, the president of the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, or learn, the district’s leading reform-advocacy group. “I believe there’s a very different agenda in the boardroom than in the living room. Now, for the first time, the living room gets to speak up.”
But an open search process can deter candidates concerned about jeopardizing their current jobs, said Thomas Giugni, the executive director of the Association of California School Administrators.
“You risk changing the chemistry of your present position, so you have to weigh your chances at getting the new job,” Mr. Giugni said.(“In Public Glare, Top Job Candidates Feel Burned,” March 5, 1997.)
The finalists were recommended to the board by an independent committee. Heidrick & Struggles, a Chicago-based executive-search firm, recruited about 25 candidates nationwide to supplement the list of 27 people who applied on their own.
The criteria for the job included a track record of educational reform, student-achievement goals, management skills, and experience with multicultural communities, said Jack Fujimoto, the chairman of the search committee.
Mr. Siart, who left First Interstate after the company was bought by Wells Fargo & Co., serves on the University of Southern California’s board of trustees. Mr. Domenech, a finalist in the 1995 search to replace New York City Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines, is the incoming president-elect of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators.