Organization: Los Angeles Unified School District
Title: Superintendent of Schools
Born: Boyle Heights, 1928
Education: B.A. in cinema, USC, 1953; M.A. in school administration and supervision, Cal State Los Angeles, 1973
Most Admired Person: President Harry S. Truman: "He wasn't eloquent, but he did the job"
Turning Point in Career: Decision to apply for a LAUSD teaching position during a teacher shortage in 1965
Personal: Divorced, four grown children
By HOWARD FINE
LAUSD insider Ruben Zacarias, who assumed the post of superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District 18 months ago, is beset by a host of problems. The board he reports to has been criticized as so incompetent that L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan is trying to replace some of its members. Many Angelenos regard the bureaucracy Zacarias oversees as so bloated and inefficient that they favor splitting up the district. Meanwhile, an increasing number of parents who can afford to do so are opting out of the public system and sending their children to private schools.
Most recently, LAUSD staff has come under fire for allegedly failing to conduct adequate environmental tests on a site near downtown where the LAUSD is building the controversial Belmont High School and Learning Complex. The oversight is expected to add even more to the project's $200 million-plus cost. Last week, state legislators said they are exploring the possibility of seeking criminal charges against LAUSD staffers for failure to look at environmental contamination.
Question: As LAUSD's top administrator, how much personal responsibility do you accept for the Belmont High School fiasco?
Answer: I was totally uninvolved in that aspect of district operations two or three years ago when those decisions were made. The unit that was responsible reported directly to the superintendent (at that time, Sid Thompson). But any decisions that were made after I took over as superintendent I am accountable for. From that point on, I'm the captain. One of the first things that I did was to reorganize the whole unit dealing with Belmont, putting it under the facilities division. I also created for the first time in this district's history environmental safety teams that include district staff and outside experts. I have also mandated that we will not purchase any new sites or continue work on existing sites before getting clearance from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.
Q: Shouldn't you be accountable for not uncovering the environmental problems earlier?
A: I do not know why this memo (detailing the site's toxic hazards) did not surface earlier. There is a whole facilities division over there. I do believe the environmental safety teams that I set in motion last year to deal with any environmental risks at the Belmont site and the Jefferson Middle School site would also have uncovered this memo and any other hazards by the time they completed their report.
Q: With estimates at $200 million and rising, this is already the most expensive high school project in the country. Why is it costing so much? And wouldn't some of that money be better spent on hiring more teachers, increasing teacher pay or buying computers for students?
A: These are a lot of "what if?" questions being asked. A lot of it had to do with the cost of the land, which needed a lot of grading. We have toxic cleanup issues that must be dealt with. Could it have been done for a lot less? Perhaps, with different designs or building structures. If, in retrospect, there was a less-expensive way to provide the educational resources for these children, maybe we should have done it differently. However, by the time I came on as superintendent, it was already pretty far along. Even if I had ordered the project scaled back, it would have had to be redesigned and probably would not have cost any less.
Q: Situations like Belmont seem to further embolden critics who insist the school district is too big, too unwieldy and should be broken up.
A: Size is not the issue, student performance is the issue. If someone can show me that breaking up the district into smaller units would improve student performance, I would support that wholeheartedly. But you look around and there are many smaller districts even here in L.A. County. Many of those districts have also gotten into troubles that have been very well documented.
The LAUSD has a lower administration-to-faculty ratio than other school districts in the county. And our size enables us to wield greater purchasing power.
Q: What are you doing to hold yourself and other LAUSD administrators accountable for their decisions?
A: I believe very strongly in the business principles of accountability. That means tying every employee's compensation to performance. This is a common practice in the private sector, but it is something that the public sector has shied away from. We should reward those people who are carrying out the mission, give assistance to those who are not carrying out the mission and get rid of those who, even after receiving assistance, are not carrying out the mission.
Q: Has anyone actually been removed for poor performance?
A: Last school year (1997-98), 19 administrators were removed. But it's not just about removing people. One of the first things I did was to negotiate a 10 percent raise for all employees over three years. In exchange for that raise, we developed accountability standards for all district staff employees. I withheld the first 6 percent of that raise for myself and senior management until at least four of our seven year-end goals were met. We ended up meeting all seven of those goals.
Q: Speaking of personal accountability, it seems that whenever things go wrong at the district, fingers point to the school board or district staff, but not to you. Shouldn't the buck stop with you?
A: All I can say is that the clock is ticking. Sooner or later, the criticism will get to me, especially if student performance does not improve.
Q: On your plan to end social promotion, some numbers indicate that more than half of all students would not advance to the next grade. Isn't that a massive failure of the school district?
A: First, the number of students who would not be able to advance to the next grade depends on the standards that you use to test them. Right now, that's the state-mandated Stanford 9 Achievement Test. But that test is not geared toward what is taught in the schools, and the state has admitted that. The state is revising that test to make it align more with what is taught. So I would expect those numbers to change as the test changes. We really don't know how many students would meet the standards.
The real issue here is not retention or promotion. The real issue is intervention, so that we don't have to deal with whether to keep the students from going on to the next grade. We're going to identify those children in grades 2 through 7 who we know are behind, and we will provide those children with one full year of extra tutoring, Saturday classes, after school or even in summer school. Whatever it takes to get them ready.
Q: What is it like to work with the school board? Don't you often find it frustrating?
A: I'm not really frustrated with the board. This board is really no different than other school boards throughout the entire nation. I really stay focused on improving student achievement. That's the bottom line; that's what I want to be judged by.
Q: What do you think of Mayor Riordan endorsing a slate of candidates for the board? Is that appropriate?
A: That's his right. I stay out of it. It's not up to me to pass judgment.
Q: On Proposition 227, the measure to end bilingual education, a lot of other school districts are enacting waivers to continue their bilingual classes. Are you feeling pressure not to comply with the initiative?
A: The law is the law. It has some defects, as it was hastily drafted and contains impractical timelines. But it's still the law and we are implementing it.
We are seeking to modify some of the timelines. For example, the initiative says a parent has 30 days after classes start to decide whether to ask for a waiver. But we don't feel it's right for a student to be in limbo for 30 days, sitting in a class that they may be moved out of. So we would want to reduce that time. It's those kinds of issues that we have concerns about.
Q: What prompted you to get into teaching and launch into a career in school administration?
A: Ever since I was very young, I wanted to be a teacher. There was always a bit of an idealist in me. After I graduated from USC, I went into the outdoor advertising business. In 1965, there was a teacher shortage, much as there is now. That is when I decided I would become a teacher; it was a turning point for me. My first assignment was to teach at Breed Street Elementary School, which was the school I attended when I was growing up in Boyle Heights.
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