The ongoing drama surrounding Ruben Zacarias, the embattled superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, reached new heights last Thursday when the school board voted 4-3 to begin negotiating a buyout of the remaining 20 months of his contract.
But Mr. Zacarias has vowed to fight the board’s effort to oust him, even if it means taking the issue to court.
“The superintendent is the leader of the school district, and there can be only one superintendent,” Mr. Zacarias said at a press briefing before the board’s vote. “I am the superintendent of the school district.”
The nation’s second-largest school system was thrown into turmoil last month after the board appointed Howard B. Miller, a local real estate lawyer and former school board member, as the chief executive officer, a new position with the power to oversee the operations of the Los Angeles schools. (“L.A. Board Names CEO With Broad Powers,” Oct. 20, 1999.)
The board said at the time that Mr. Miller would report to Mr. Zacarias, but it escalated its efforts to replace the schools chief last week. Not only did the board vote to negotiate terms of a contract buyout, but the Los Angeles Times also reported that Ramon C. Cortines, a former superintendent in New York City and San Francisco, was already being considered as a replacement.
Mr. Zacarias has come under increased scrutiny following a recent internal audit in which he was held partly to blame for oversight lapses in the troubled construction of the Belmont Learning Complex. Work on the half-finished school has all but halted because of environmental concerns over its 35-acre site, which is on an abandoned oil field. New estimates suggest the school’s cost could spiral to $300 million.
The 700,000-student system is also facing the possible loss of an estimated $900 million in state bond money for other construction because of paperwork problems.
Latino leaders have come to the defense of Mr. Zacarias, however. Many members of the Hispanic community attended the Oct. 28 board meeting to show support for the superintendent, a veteran Los Angeles educator. Some accused the board of racism.
The political sensitivities are particularly acute because the effort to oust Mr. Zacarias is being led by three board members who were elected last spring and were backed by Mayor Richard J. Riordan.
Mr. Zacarias “does not want this to be seen as a racial issue,” said Socorro Serrano, a spokeswoman for the district. “He was very disturbed by these comments.”
In another surprise move earlier in the week, Mr. Zacarias unveiled to the press a broad plan to reorganize the sprawling system into 12 smaller, semiautonomous districts. His plan, which lacked details, called for higher expectations for teachers and students, as well as new employee contracts.
Board members and many observers seemed perplexed by the timing of the plan and appeared doubtful about its chances of being considered, given the superintendent’s precarious situation.
“Perhaps the proposal is his attempt to show he has the right stuff, but it’s way too late in the game to be doing this,” said Steve Blazak, the spokesman for United Teachers Los Angeles, the 41,000-member joint affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.
Meanwhile, district employees are keeping a close eye on the unfolding events.
“I think everybody is a little bit unsettled about how the reorganization will shake down and how their own function might be changed or altered,” said Shel Erlich, a spokesman for the district.
A version of this article appeared in the November 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as School Board Votes To Buy Out L.A. Superintendent’s Contract