Leonard M. Britton: pioneer in concept Schmoke advocates THE FINAL FIVE: SEARCH FOR A SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT jTC

April 28, 1991|By Michael Ollove

When Leonard M. Britton was appointed Los Angeles' new school superintendent in 1987, no outsider had held that post for almost 40 years.

It proved to be a brief interlude.

Three turbulent years after assuming the leadership of the nation's second-largest school system -- years of vitriolic confrontations with the teachers union and evaporating state financial support -- Dr. Britton abruptly announced that he had had enough.

In short order, Los Angeles returned to the norm and replaced him with a career bureaucrat from within the school system.

It was all so unexpected. When Los Angeles' Board of Education lured Dr. Britton from Dade County, Fla., where he had been school superintendent for almost seven years, it seemed a perfect fit. "He was exactly what we were looking for," said Jackie Goldberg, president of the Los Angeles school board.

The board, she said, had wanted both an educational "visionary" who could improve student performance as well as someone with the know-how to build a smoothly running operation. In both regards, Los Angeles believed Dr. Britton was without equal.

He had been a pioneer in "school-based management," a concept then gaining popularity across the country. The idea -- favored by Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- is to invest administrators, parents and teachers at individual schools with decision-making authority, rather than the central administration.

Under Dr. Britton, Miami became one of the first school districts in the country to put school-based management into effect. Los Angeles had an interest in following suit.

Though reserved and erudite, Dr.Britton had proved that he was more than a theoretician. Within months of his assuming the Miami superintendency in 1979, the city was wracked by remarkable events that threatened to impair the school system for years -- violent race riots and boatlifts from Cuba and Haiti that brought to the city thousands of students who spoke no English and were illiterate even in Spanish.

Yet, Dr. Britton didn't allow the tensions to undermine his schools. "Through it all," the Miami Herald editorialized years later in an effort to keep him from taking the Los Angeles job, "Dade's schools not only survived, they improved -- and they did so with scant extra help from the federal and state governments."

Miami's population mix of whites, blacks and Hispanics seemed the perfect proving ground for a job in Los Angeles. And Dr. Britton's remarkably congenial labor relations in Miami promised more serene relations between the Los Angeles school administration and its often bitter adversary, the United Teachers-Los Angeles, the teachers union.

L It all seemed so right. And it was wrong from the beginning.

By the time Dr. Britton arrived in Los Angeles, three of the seven board members who had hired him were gone. Some of those on the board and many within his administration resented that his two deputies -- one a black and the other Hispanic -- had been passed over for the job.

The teachers union, angered about perceived pay inequities, never focused on his school-based management idea, and held work stoppages and a strike. At the same time, a new formula for distributing state money left urban districts like Los Angeles with less and less money.

"He didn't have a difficult time because of problems in education but because of those who had their own agendas and used him as the whipping boy," said Ms. Goldberg, who described him as a gifted educator beset by circumstances largely beyond his control.

Not all board members agreed. Leticia Quezada, who joined the board after Dr. Britton's appointment, insisted that he was undone by his own inabilities, particularly his uninspiring leadership. And she disputes the story that he voluntarily resigned. After he announced that he was going to leave in a year, the board voted to buy out his contract for $250,000 so that he would go immediately. It was a step, she said, the board was going to take anyway.

When he left the superintendency a year ago, Dr. Britton, 60, had the sound of a man who would not return to public life. Now he is a candidate for the superintendency in four places, including Baltimore.

Dr. Britton said last week that he has not found private consulting nearly as satisfying as running a district.

"I've been going around the country for the last several months . . . suggesting to people how to run their school systems, and it's not the same as running it yourself," he said. "Now I find I miss the actual day-to-day work where you get your hands dirty."

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