Michelle King, The First Black Woman To Lead LAUSD, Dies at 57

LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King visits an eighth grade accelerated math class at Luther Burbank Middle School on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016, during the first day of instruction. (Photo by Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

Michelle King, who rose through the ranks of the Los Angeles Unified School District to eventually serve as its superintendent, died Saturday. King was 57.

When school board members selected her in 2016, King became the first black woman to lead the nation's second largest school system, capping a 33-year career as a teacher, principal and high-ranking administrator in L.A. Unified.

But cancer cut it all short. Less than two years after taking office, King took medical leave in Oct. 2017 and named an acting replacement, Vivian Ekchian. It was only in Jan. 2018 that King first publicly disclosed her diagnosis. She did so, saying she would step down from L.A. Unified permanently.

A statement released by LAUSD officials expressed deep sadness:

"Words cannot begin to describe the sorrow we feel, the love we shared with — and for — Dr. King, and the lasting impact she had on our communities. Her dedication to uplift every student, family and employee within Los Angeles Unified was second to none."

"Dr. Michelle King's life and career," said Mayor Eric Garcetti, also in a statement, "encapsulated what it means to be an Angeleno: excellence, kindness, integrity, service above self."

KING'S CAREER

L.A. Unified was part of King's life almost from the beginning. She attended elementary and middle school in the district and graduated from LAUSD's Palisades High School.

After earning a degree in biology from UCLA, she began a 33-year career as an educator in L.A. Unified, first teaching science at Porter Middle School in Granada Hills.

From there, she began a climb through the district hierarchy. King left the classroom for the administrative ranks in 1997, rising to become principal of Hamilton High School in 2002. She left Hamilton in 2005 to become an assistant superintendent, beginning a string of central-office roles.

King served as a top aide to two of her predecessors. In 2010, Superintendent Ramón Cortines selected King to serve as his Chief of Staff. She then served as a top deputy to both John Deasy during his turbulent superintendency, and to Cortines, who returned on an interim basis after Deasy's resignation.

"I am the product of this very district," King said at a 2016 press conference announcing her selection as superintendent. "It has been a part of my life since I was 5 years old."

FILE - LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King visits an eighth grade accelerated math class at Luther Burbank Middle School on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016, during the first day of instruction. (Photo by Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

KING'S SUPERINTENDENCY

During her abbreviated tenure as superintendent, King solidified her reputation as a consensus-builder and deal-maker.

She forged a partnership with an organization that critics had seen as a potential threat to LAUSD; today, Great Public Schools Now is helping to replicate some of the district's most-successful schools. She also settled a prominent squabble among board members over the school calendar.

King also oversaw reductions in central office budgets. In 2016, she set a target to slash administrative budgets by one-quarter.

As KPCC reported last year:

During King's year-and-a-half on the job, district leaders rallied around the goal of achieving 100 percent high school graduation — a goal that predated King's time as superintendent, but which nonetheless became central to her administration. During her tenure, graduation rates topped 80 percent.

King also called for streamlining the process by which parents across the district find, apply for and choose the schools their children attend. To King, giving parents easy access to these options was a means of reversing the district's decade-long trend of enrollment decline. A new "unified enrollment system" meant to fulfill this aim began coming online [in 2017]. Enrollment, meanwhile, has continued to decline...

But King also struggled to win support for her broader strategic plan for L.A. Unified. Though she spent much of the first year putting the visioning document on paper, school board members never voted to approve it. Though that plan included goals for reducing absenteeism, a blue ribbon panel of community leaders recently concluded the district "does not have an adequate plan in place" to achieve any of King's ambitious targets.

KING'S LEGACY

Many in LAUSD continue to speak highly of King. Some speculate about what more she might've accomplished had her term not been cut short.

More from the district's statement about King's life:

"She was a collaborative and innovative leader who broke down barriers to create more equitable opportunities for every student. Her warmth, love and generosity transformed countless lives and left a legacy that will continue to impact us for generations."

Most recently, as the labor dispute with United Teachers Los Angeles members grew more intense, some observers speculated about whether this month's six-day teachers strike might've been averted if King, with her knack for consensus-building, had remained superintendent.

King's decision to step down in 2018 for health reasons continued a trend of turnover in the top office of LAUSD. In the last ten years, five people have served as LAUSD superintendent on a permanent or interim basis — Cortines (twice), Deasy, King, Vivian Ekchian and Austin Beutner.

Roy Romer, who retired in 2006, was the most recent LAUSD superintendent to last more than four years on the job. He was hired in 2000.

The district's statement sends condolences to King's "daughters, parents and brother."