On July 20th, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson announced that Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana will replace Vincent Matthews as Inglewood Unified’s newest School Administrator.
An administrative virtuoso, Melendez seems to be a natural fit for the tough challenge that the troubled Inglewood school district presents.
In 2012, Inglewood’s school board ceded power to the state after requesting a $50 million emergency loan to avoid bankruptcy. Since then, the board has only served an advisory role to the state. Melendez, as the new state appointed administrator, will hold the full legal power to run the city’s schools.
She may be Inglewood’s best hope for regaining local control of its district. Melendez’s impressive career boasts high-profile posts and prestigious honors. Beginning as a bilingual teacher in Montebello Unified, she climbed the ranks to become a principal in that same district. In 2006, she elevated to Superintendent of Pomona Unified.
She has achieved what few of her peers have, parlaying her local leadership experience into a bid for power on the national stage. In 2009, she joined President Obama’s administration as Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education. In 2011, she returned to California to secure top positions as Superintendent of Santa Ana Unified, senior advisor to Mayor Garcetti, and department CEO of Los Angeles Unified. Her years of leadership have given her a depth and breadth of knowledge to manage urban school districts and large bureaucratic systems, alike.
Experience alone does not make a great leader. In the case of Inglewood schools, great leaders also need grit and staying power. Over the past five years, the district has been vexed with a lineup of short-term administrators, none of whom were able to make significant progress in repairing the district’s long-term financial health or reverse its declining enrollment.
In a recent interview, Melendez said that she plans to stay with Inglewood schools for four years, which in perspective, is longer than the tenure of any of her predecessors. In that time, she plans to work herself out of a job by helping the district meet the state’s mandated requirements to regain local control.
But Melendez’s job history casts doubt on her pledge to stay beyond two years, which has been the longest term life of the two permanent appointees before her. In fact, her resume shows that she does not stay in one position for long. Her short-term stints paint a picture of a professional who is constantly seeking bigger and better opportunities. When considering Inglewood, all of the pressure that comes with turning around an ailing school district may motivate her to leave more than it entices her to stay.
It’s reasonable to assume that Melendez’s nomadic job patterns may work against her, at least initially, as she attempts to gain the trust of Inglewood’s school board, staff, and community, many of whom have become wary of newcomers. To gain favor with city residents and employees, Melendez will have to demonstrate that she plans to remain in her role until the job of transferring control back to the district is done.
But four years may not be enough time to complete the mountain of tasks that lay before her, especially given the district’s slow rate of progress in meeting state requirements so far.
The state’s financial watchdog, the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), audits Inglewood each year to track its progress toward reaching the five operational goals required by the state as conditions of restoring the district’s authority. The five focus areas include boosting student achievement, balancing the budget, managing a trained staff force, keeping facilities safe, and engaging the community.
The highest score possible is a 10. In 5 years, the district has never earned an average score above 4 in any of the five areas. It needs at least a 6 to show the state that it is seriously implementing FCMAT’s recommendations for recovery.
If Melendez truly wants to depart in four years, with a certificate of completion, her top priority will be accelerating the district’s progress toward meeting state standards.
In a tone of excitement, Melendez recently said, “I am eager to roll up my sleeves and get to work.” But once she hits the ground, her enthusiasm will probably be short-lived. Tough decisions loom on the horizon. The most glaring of which is the issue of preventing the flight of more students. The district forecasts a continued trend of declining enrollment in the 2017-2018 school year, from about 13,000 last year to 12,500. This means that the district must grapple with yet another year of revenue loss despite the growing prevalence of high-need students who rely on its resources.
Hopeful and optimistic, Melendez begins her first day on August 16th, just in time to meet the district’s staff, parents, and community for the beginning of school year on August 22nd.