Marlene Canter helped run a teacher-training company for 25 years before winning a seat on the board of the L.A. Unified School District four years ago. Her goal was to bring in more supplies for teachers, improve teacher training and add charter schools. But the board has had to make billions of dollars in budget cuts, while overseeing the biggest school building program in its history. In July, just after Canter became president, she faced a new challenge: L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's stated desire to exert more control over the district, which is seen as inefficient and poorly run by L.A. voters. Still, Canter has had her successes. She pushed through a ban on junk food on school campuses. And last month, the district finally reached a compromise with preservationists over plans for building new schools on the site of the Ambassador Hotel.


Question: You've said the many groups clashing over schools need to work together. How?
Answer:
One of the first things I did as president was invite the new president of the teacher's union and the school superintendent to a retreat in Oxnard in early August. This was not a summit where there would be huge agreements, but a time to sit down with each other and listen to each other's concerns. It's time to focus on what we do agree on: the need to create the best possible learning environment for the kids.


Q: How did the meeting turn out?
A:
We talked very candidly over the course of 24 to 36 hours, developing trust, developing relationships. Some in the media no doubt were waiting for the A, B, and C of agreements, but the important thing for us was that we actually sat down and talked to each other for the first time.


Q: Have there been any concrete results?
A:
This was not a decision-making meeting but a relationship-building meeting. Out of this meeting came some ideas for where we might work more closely as partners in the future. One of the areas we discussed was finding ways the three of us could partner on an initiative the board approved to establish smaller learning communities within our middle schools and high schools.


Q: Do you think the mayor of L.A. should have authority to pick LAUSD board members or be part of the LAUSD board himself?
A:
Unless you know what the problems are, simply changing the leadership only puts a Band-Aid on the wound. This governance conversation is a very political one. I don't think that simply changing the governance is going to close the achievement test gap or create safer schools. The better solution is to have the mayor of Los Angeles step up to the plate and help the School District, not run it.


Q: So did you discuss this issue with Mayor Villaraigosa?
A:
As soon as I was elected president (of the board) and he was elected mayor, we did have a discussion. He told me at that time that his priority was partnering with the School District on key issues like safety, joint use of school campuses and after-school programs. I was thrilled to hear this. He did not address the issue of whether the mayor should have a say in running the school district.


Q: Is the LAUSD too big? Should it be broken up?
A:
No question this is a big district. One of our seven sub-districts is actually bigger than the entire Denver school district. There are a lot of challenges and there are probably a lot of efficiencies that can be achieved. By the end of our building and construction program which should be between 2012 and 2014 that's when we should take up the issue of defining the size of the district.


Q: What about getting more funding from Sacramento? Do you think chances have improved?
A:
No. There is a total disconnect between Sacramento and the school districts. There is a lack of commitment for funding. We need to be competitive with other states on a per-pupil basis. Education is a civil right of all our kids. It's a matter of social justice.


Q: What's your position on the November ballot initiative that would make it take longer for teachers to reach tenure?
A:
The initiative doesn't look at the whole practice of teaching. It's a simplistic solution that won't accomplish anything. Much more thought needs to be placed on how teachers are trained. That's the real key. Too often teachers are given minimal training and just hit the classroom. They don't know how to teach and they don't know how to control the classroom.


Q: Is there a role that businesses in L.A. can play to improve the quality of LAUSD schools?
A:
Corporations can partner with schools in many different ways. Companies can adopt schools to lend a helping hand. Employees can tutor students and should be encouraged to do so. Also, the leaders of a company should be amenable to giving time off so that their employees can attend parent-teacher conferences and take their kids to school. But most of all, it takes a realization from the top levels of management at a company that there is a need to give back to the community, to the schools.


Q: Steve Barr of a charter school company called Green Dot has proposed taking over Jefferson High School. Do you think this is a good idea?
A:
I talked with Steve Barr and told him that rather than trying to take over Jefferson, he should join us to help improve the school. Divisiveness is not the best way to go. We should work collaboratively. We're still in discussions about this.


Q: You just got the board to pass a ban on junk food being served on campus. What prompted this?
A:
I became educated as a board member about this obesity epidemic that's plaguing our students. Fifty percent of our kids are overweight in middle school. This is not just an issue of looks. For the first time in history, these kids are apt to die at a younger age than their parents. They are already getting adult-onset diabetes. We already had taken the step of banning soda sales on campus, so I decided to take this next step.


Q: Are you satisfied with the way the Ambassador Hotel deal turned out? When will the schools planned for the site open?
A:
I think the compromise was creative, that we will be able to preserve at least some of that historic site. As for the schools, they should open in 2008.


Q: What's been the biggest surprise for you in your four years on the school board?
A:
The only major policy issue I hadn't dealt with before coming onto the school board was this whole area of school construction. I didn't realize when I campaigned for the school board just how much that would come to dominate the agenda. All the planning and environmental issues I've pretty much had to learn on the job.


Q: Your teacher-training business was one of the largest in the U.S. Why did you sell it and go into public service?
A:
At a certain point, my husband and I realized the company needed to be put into stronger hands. So we sold it in 1998 to what was then Sylvan Learning Centers. I stayed on as co-chief executive for two years. But I knew that I was making a transition in my life, both in career and in my personal life. My children were out of the house and I was no longer married. At first, I actually wanted to become a rabbi.


Q: So, what happened?
A:
A close friend suggested that with my background, I should run for the Los Angeles school board. The more I thought about it, the more interested I became. I started watching the school board meetings and realized that almost every policy issue they were discussing I had dealt with at some point in my career.


Q: What lessons from running a business did you take to the board position?
A:
The fact that I had to deal with budgets, strategic planning and learning how to lead a company have all been very useful to me.


Q: How do you keep from being overwhelmed?
A:
I don't have time to be overwhelmed. When I wake up in the morning, I know that there are 737,000 kids that depend on my leadership, decision-making and my ability not to get mired in frustration.


* Marlene Canter
Title : President
Organization : Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education
Born : Los Angeles, 1948
Education : B.A., social welfare, California State University Long Beach; three teaching credentials from Pacific Coast College
Career Turning Points : After college, switching from social work to teaching; later, a friend's suggestion to run for school board
Most Admired People: Mother, who became a teacher late in life; teaching mentor Molly Scudd at Pacific Coast College; Marian Wright Edelman
Hobbies : Reading, listening to music, spending time outdoors and with family and friends
Personal : Lives in Westwood; divorced with two grown children

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