Staff Reporter

Wanted: Top executive to run $5 billion organization. Must work closely with seven-person board involved in day-to-day activities. Employees represented by strong union. Facilities in disrepair. Pay far less than that of any similar position.

One other thing: If you can’t turn this monstrous, complex organization around, you will be publicly strung up.

Not an ad that’s likely to get many takers especially from such experienced executives as former First Interstate Bancorp CEO William Siart, a man accustomed to a high salary, a corner office and a little respect.

But that’s exactly the job being pursued by Siart, who is one of three candidates vying to be the next superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Rejecting the enticements of headhunters to take top executive jobs in the corporate world, Siart is looking to apply his business acumen to running and reforming the LAUSD.

“Most people (in the school district) have come up through the system. They are dedicated and know how to educate. But they have never had the experience of running an extremely large organization,” Siart said.

Those lifers are exactly the people Siart is up against in his efforts to convince the seven-member school board that he’s right for the job. Siart is one of three finalists who last week went through rigorous questioning in both public and private forums.

The other two finalists are long-time school system administrators Ruben Zacarias, the current deputy superintendent of the LAUSD and the acknowledged front-runner, and Daniel Domenech, a superintendent for a district in Long Island, N.Y.

Even Zacarias, who has worked for the L.A. school district for 31 years, seems to support Siart’s belief that the massive organization could use a little business know-how. During his two-day review process last week with the school board and other groups, he proposed creating a new business czar position that would handle all the district’s business functions.

Siart, for his part, recognizes that he would need the knowledge of long-time educators and others to run the district, but says he would bring to the table his experience in managing a $56 billion-in-assets company with a $3 billion annual budget, 40,000 employees and 1,300 facilities as CEO of First Interstate.

“One of management’s main jobs is to set priorities, select the best people and listen to them individually and in groups,” he said. “You don’t need to know all the details of an organization. You’re bringing a focus, an agreement of execution and follow-up, to make sure everybody does their part. It’s a job of leadership, and that’s what’s needed in L.A. schools.”

One might wonder why Siart a businessman who could command much more in the private sector than the superintendent’s annual salary of $163,000 (he pulled down more than $2.7 million at First Interstate in 1995) is trying so hard to convince the school board that he’s the person who can turn around the LAUSD.

Siart, 50, spent much of his adult life working in the banking industry, being named president and CEO of First Interstate in 1995. When the bank was acquired about a year ago by Wells Fargo & Co., he left corporate life and only recently resurfaced when he announced he wanted to be the next superintendent.

Siart’s desire for the job stems from what he saw as a businessman living in L.A.

“The business community at large, and I, being one of them, have talked about the poor education that comes out of the school system for years,” said Siart. “You’d try to hire people, give them an entry-level test, and many would fail eighth or ninth grade-level math exams.

“We (business people) would say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have somebody with the management skills at a large-scale organization to run the district?’ This is a chance to do what we’ve all talked about doing for years, to give back to L.A,” he said.

Siart is quick to point out that he recognizes the LAUSD is not a business and that his main goal is getting the district to do a better job in educating kids. But he and others point out that the financial and administrative difficulties in running such a complex organization are virtually the same as those encountered in running a business.

“Don’t look at L.A. Unified as a business because it’s not,” said Tony Ressler, a partner at Apollo Advisors L.P. and a board member of the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now (LEARN, the district’s largest reform program). “One thing is for sure, (the superintendent’s job) is a very complicated undertaking. The person has to have financial and administrative strength, or have access to someone who does. As importantly, you’ve got to understand what it’s like to educate kids.”

Ressler said that both Siart’s and Zacarias’ qualifications would be valuable to the district. “The concept of having an outsider adds great value. The concept of having an insider adds great value. It would be nice if you could mush the two together. It’s not like a $5 billion school district doesn’t have room for both at the top.”

Calling on outsiders and non-educators to run school districts is an idea that has been gaining momentum around the country, said Bruce Matsui, a professor at Claremont Graduate School’s Center for Education Studies. He points to decisions by school districts in Seattle and Washington, D.C. to bring in former army generals to head up their school systems.

“If someone comes in saying, ‘I know the answer,’ they’re in trouble. But if they say, ‘I’ve got some skills that will provide the stewardship to move L.A. Unified through some substantive changes,’ I’d feel more comfortable.”

There is broad agreement that changes must be made, so could Siart be the person who can fix what’s broke at the LAUSD?

“I know that other school districts around the nation have chosen to (hire non-educators),” said Bobbi Farrell, president-elect of the 31st District PTA. “I think that in some ways the (selection of Siart) is the best thing that could happen. It’s certainly a huge corporation, and it takes business acumen to run a lot of the departments.”

But Farrell also said the superintendent must understand education. “We prefer somebody with an education background, but we’re open to other possibilities,” she said.

Eli Brent, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, also said he remains open to the selection of a business person.

“I would never agree with the naysayers who say business people don’t belong in school (administration),” said Brent. “But I would hesitate if somebody says, ‘I’m going to take business practices and apply them to the school system.'”

Brent also remains realistic about the ultimate selection. “If you’re looking for a messiah, good luck,” he said. “We’re just looking for the best person.”

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