Joe W. Bowers Jr. | California Black Media

Seven years ago the Inglewood Unified School District went into state receivership when Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation making a state loan available to allow the school district to avoid fiscal insolvency.

As a condition of receiving the state loan, Inglewood’s Board of Education surrendered its control to the California Department of Education (CDE) headed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

Torlakson at the press conference before elected officials, union leaders, community leaders, and concerned community members assembled to meet Kent Taylor, the State Administrator he appointed to run Inglewood’s schools, said that CDE would run things as long as it takes for the district to return to sound financial footing, somewhere between two and six years.

But seven years later, local control of Inglewood schools appears to be many years away from happening. Under Torlakson, Inglewood experienced a parade of six State Administrators in less than 5 years and because he failed to appoint stable leadership, he could not deliver on his promise to solve Inglewood’s fiscal problems before he left office.  

Education trailer bill AB 1840 signed by Governor Brown last year providing financial relief to Inglewood Unified and Oakland Unified to help pay back their state loans and reduce their budget deficits included a provision that shifted control of school districts with state loans from CDE to its local county office of education. 

After a year in charge of Inglewood schools, the presence of County Superintendent Debra Durado and the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE pronounced lay-co) has largely gone unnoticed by the community. Unlike Torlakson, she has not met with the community to express her expectations for the school district.

 LACOE’s low profile may be about to change because Dr. Thelma Melendez, Torlakson’s last and most effective State Administrator has retired. It now falls upon LACOE to find her replacement.

Finding a comparable County Administrator to replace Dr. Melendez will be a challenge. Before Inglewood Unified, she led the Pomona and Santa Ana school districts, and worked as assistant Secretary of Education during the Obama Administration.

In July, LACOE established a “transition team” headed by Deputy Superintendent Dr. Erika Torres, to work with Dr. Melendez before she left and run the school district until a new County Administrator was appointed.

Dr. Torres’ tenure as Inglewood’s seventh administrator in seven years should have been planned to be as short as possible and during the transition as many administrative decisions as practical should have been deferred until a new Administrator was appointed.

Instead LACOE’s actions during the transition are raising questions about its judgment. Dr. Melendez announced in July she would be retiring, but LACOE waited until mid-September to solicit applications for her job. Interviews for her replacement start on October 30 and an appointment is planned by November 12. Had the eight week time line they established from posting the job to making the appointment been started shortly after Melendez’s announcement, an administrator would be on the job now. 

Coincidently, after Melendez announced that she would be retiring all of Inglewood Unified’s senior administrative cabinet – the Chief Business Official (CBO), Chief Academic Officer and Executive Director of Human Resources – announced they would be retiring or leaving for other jobs.

While it’s extremely disruptive to school operations to lose experienced people in key positions at the same time, their leaving presented an opportunity for a new Administrator to assemble his or her administrative team avoiding any compatibility issues with senior staff they might inherit.

Rather than wait, LACOE has hired replacements for the senior cabinet. The Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Bernadette Lucas, is new to the school district and has no experience as a chief academic officer or academic director. The Executive Director of Human Resources, Hedieh Khajavi, is also new to the school district and has no experience running a human resources department. The Chief Business Official, Christine Dacanay, is the only one hired that has Inglewood experience. She was interim CBO, is familiar with the specifics of the school district’s financial condition and was endorsed by the previous CBO Eugenio Villa.

Reviewing the experience of some of those hired for the senior cabinet could cause promising candidates for County Administrator to have second thoughts about accepting the job.

Inglewood Unified is only beginning to overcome the bad administrator choices Torlakson made largely because of the hard work of Dr. Melendez and her senior cabinet. The school district likely cannot sustain a series of bad administrator choices by LACOE.

Previously, CDE was solely responsible for appointing the administrator. AB 1840 included a provision that directs the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT pronounced fig-mat) to put together the list of candidates for County Administrator. Also, Torlakson’s successor, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and the president of the State Board of Education Dr Linda Darling-Hammond are required to sign off on LACOE’s choice for administrator.

While the changes in the administrator selection process may be a reaction to trying to remedy the poor job Torlakson did when he was in control, they will be effective only if those given the responsibility take it seriously. The success of the Inglewood Unified School District and the future of its students depend on it.

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