Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has announced that Dr. Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana will be the sixth State Administrator to lead the Inglewood Unified School District.
A little less than five years ago the California Legislature passed an emergency loan bill, Senate Bill (SB) 533, approving an up to $55 million loan to Inglewood Unified. As a condition of accepting the state loan, the community surrendered control of the school district to Torlakson.
Torlakson’s parade of State Administrators shows an inability to select the right administrator for Inglewood schools and to his credit it shows a disposition to admit his mistakes and attempt to correct them.
Kent Taylor, his first State Administrator selection, “resigned” after two months on the job. For reasons never explained, he signed an agreement with the teachers union without authority. Torlakson’s responded to Taylor’s exit by saying, “This change is in the best interests of taxpayers, students and employees of the Inglewood Unified School District,”.
La Tanya Kirk Carter Latham was appointed interim State Administrator after Taylor, and served six turbulent months until Dr. Don Brann was selected.
During his tenure, Brann failed to balance the budget, failed to maintain school facilities, and failed to secure millions of dollars in state and federal grants. Brann never directed his full attention toward improving the education of Inglewood students while Inglewood was paying his salary. He sat on the board of trustees of Da Vinci Charter schools and participated in events benefiting the Wiseburn School District, where he had previously served as Superintendent.
Torlakson terminated Brann’s appointment and the next day announced that he had hired Dr. Vincent Matthews.
Torlakson said, “There are very few leaders who have led districts under state receivership and Dr. Matthews is one of them. His experience and passion are the right fit at the right time for the Inglewood school community.”
Matthews balanced the budget and repaired confidence in the school district lost during Dr. Brann’s administration. Unlike his predessors, Matthews was not forced out by Torlakson, but as a San Francisco native left Inglewood when chosen to head the San Francisco Unified School District.
Jason Spencer became Torlakson’s fifth appointment when he was selected Interim State Administrator to succeed Matthews.
Because Torlakson is not open about how he selects State Administrators, speculation in the community has been mixed as to whether he has chosen another Matthews or another Brann. Whereas Torlakson was prophetic in saying that Dr. Matthews was the right fit to lead Inglewood schools, he expresses less confidence in Dr. Meléndez saying, “Thelma Meléndez has a strong combination of leadership skills and experience managing school districts.”
Dr. Meléndez’s resume as an education professional is impressive. She was superintendent of Pomona Unified, assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, superintendent of Santa Ana Unified, Mayor Garcetti’s chief adviser on education and workforce development and chief executive officer for the Office of Educational Services, Los Angeles Unified School District. However, it’s not the list of jobs that we consider when judging her fitness to lead Inglewood schools but the skills exercised and the experience obtained from those jobs.
Inglewood Unified is Meléndez’s sixth job during the last 10 years. She has only five years experience as a Superintendent and her last superintendent’s position was two jobs ago. That experience does not include turning around a school district having financial problems. While at Santa Ana Unified their bond rating was downgraded because the school district finances had deteriorated during her leadership.
Since her appointment, Meléndez has made comments confirming our concern that she does not fully understand what she will have to do to turn Inglewood schools around. She said she wants to see Inglewood Unified leave receivership, in three, four years.
Inglewood Unified’s last budget is projecting three years of deficit spending and shows no reserves for economic uncertainty. Returning the school district to local control will have to overcome those difficult financial hurdles. For someone who has no turnaround experience and who is two jobs removed from running a school district, we have no evidence she has the skills and experience necessary to solve Inglewood’s issues.
In addition to resolving the school district’s financial woes, she will have to address the problem of declining enrollment; reduce expenditures for educating special education students and fix school facilities before local control is a possibility. Given her work history, it’s not unreasonable to question whether Meléndez will be around long enough to oversee Inglewood’s return to community control.
The community’s hope is that Dr. Meléndez succeeds because Inglewood Unified students will be the beneficiary. The actions that she needs to take as state administrator have already been identified and it’s past the time those actions should have been implemented. No 60-100 day listening tours are needed. She needs to “right size” the school district by matching-up staffing and number of facilities to the number students being served. Wages and benefits need to be established at amounts that the school district can afford. Failure to on her part to act should be proof to Torlakson that there are valid concerns about this selection.
Joe Bowers is a public education advocate. He is a retired engineer and business executive. He is a graduate of Stanford University.