Thursday, December 18, 2008


by Caroline Grannan, | SF Education Examiner

Caroline Grannan was an editor at the San Jose Mercury News for 12 years. Currently she contributes to a number of Internet sites dealing with education and schools. She is a San Francisco public school parent, advocate, and volunteer and has followed education politics locally and nationwide


December 17, 2:04 -- PM Former San Francisco Superintendent Ramon “Ray” Cortines was  just named to head the huge Los Angeles school system, after LAUSD’s non-amicable separation with David Brewer.

Cortines was supe in San Francisco from 1987-’93. I became a parent in 1990, but I’m ashamed to say that I paid no attention whatsoever to SFUSD issues until kindergarten loomed in 1996. So I had to go to a veteran to get an informed view of Cortines.

My impression based on after-the-fact hearsay was that Cortines (pictured) was very, very well-liked in our district but that the schools weren’t doing so great in his time, and that there were some parent-unfriendly practices that helped drive parents with options out of the district.

Jill Wynns is a longtime SFUSD school board member who was first elected toward the end of Cortines’ tenure. Before that she was a heavily involved and aware public-school parent, so she’s quite familiar with his work here. She tells me my take didn’t give him enough credit. He was indeed extremely popular, and my negative views don’t do him justice.

Here are some of Wynns’ views:

  • “Cortines is fiscally conservative and a good, careful manager. But he has not headed a school district in the era of test-based accountability” – though Cortines was already Brewer’s top deputy in LAUSD.
  • “He was always really loved by teachers and by the unions.” That’s what I had always heard, though I had to wonder how someone managing a fiscally strapped school district could continue to be so popular. When SFUSD had to send layoff notices to hundreds of teachers, Wynns recalls, Cortines invited every teacher in the district to a huge meeting at the Masonic Auditorium to tell them “how terrible he felt – given the political and financial realities he had no choice.” The reception was overwhelmingly forgiving and favorable. Naturally I wondered why every leader who has to make painful cuts in tough fiscal times doesn’t try the same thing (this includes Wynns herself, since she has had to vote for layoff notices and school closures as a school board member, and has taken lots of flak for it). But she says only Cortines could pull that off successfully – apparently he’s just an exceptionally winning guy.
  • He came in daily to work at 5 or 6 a.m. and would answer his own office phone at that hour, so he was accessible to anyone who wanted to talk to him.
  • He dropped in on schools regularly, unannounced. Cortines left San Francisco to become chancellor of the New York City school system (he was apparently later hounded out by Rudy Giuliani, which to me is a badge of honor for Cortines). “When he first took the job, he was on the way into New York City from the airport,” Wynns says, “and he had the driver stop at a school. Supposedly it was the first time in years that a New York chancellor had actually visited a school.”
  • Any weak points? “He paid a lot of attention to the finances and the business but never really got around to academic reform,” Wynns says, though she adds that Cortines would probably dispute that, and that he did implement a districtwide curriculum. And he had trouble getting along with the school board, even if everyone else loved him.
  • These days superintendents get blasted for overly lavish lifestyles and salaries, though realistically most pragmatists realize we can’t expect them to live like monks if we want to compete with the private sector – there’s a reasonable middle ground. Anyway, Wynns says Cortines doesn’t have financial needs, family obligations or a sense of entitlement. In San Francisco, he lived in a rented apartment and frequented – at his own expense – a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant.

Cortines is a former teacher and principal who spent some time doing real estate investment before returning to education, which apparently gave him some financial security. He has an artistic bent, collects modern art and moves in the art world.

Oh, and my negative views? They were partly based on what I’d heard about the school assignment system before my time. Back then, a student assigned to a school had to be specifically released by the school before the family was free to apply to another district school, and that would only happen if the student didn’t add diversity to the school. This additional hurdle definitely drove families off to private school and the ’burbs.

Wynns says Cortines doesn’t really get the blame for that system, and meanwhile gets major credit for doing away with the old “first come, first served” admission process to SFUSD’s popular alternative schools, which had families camping in schoolyards for days before enrollment opened. He abolished that system “by fiat,” a courageous move that outraged middle-class families, Wynns told me.

Cortines was previously interim superintendent in LAUSD, in 2000, before going to work in the foundation world. Since then, LAUSD has had two non-educators as supe – former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer and most recently Brewer, a military man. One Los Angeles Times columnist was just commenting on the illogic of hiring non-educators as superintendent, unaware that it has been a fad for some years to seek out business and military leaders rather than veteran educators – a fad that grew, in my view, out of a public contempt for educators. That fad was a flop – time to get back to respect for experience.

Best wishes to Cortines and the L.A. schools. I asked Wynns if there had ever been talk about Cortines’ returning to SFUSD when there have been openings. “No,"she says, "he'd been here and done that.”

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