Saturday, June 06, 2009

ANSWER MAN: LAUSD Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines hopes to restore funding — and faith — in public education

By Carl Kozlowski | Pasadena Weekly

06/04/2009 -- Perhaps two words best sum up the career of Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines: Crisis control.

Today, Cortines heads the nation’s second-largest school district, which nearly  every day faces new calls for funding cuts to help balance the state’s budget.

But the stress created by satisfying these increasingly daunting demands is nothing new for Cortines.

Although he’s served as head of school systems in San Jose, San Francisco and New York, Cortines cut his professional teeth in Pasadena on resolving one of the most challenging issues facing public education over the past century — school desegregation.

It’s because of that issue that Cortines has the distinction of serving two separate terms as superintendent of Pasadena schools, first from 1972 to 1978, and again from 1979 to 1984. During his first term, Cortines carried out a busing plan to meet a federal judge’s order to desegregate local schools, actions that ultimately led the Board of Education at the time to fire him in 1978. But after protests from supporters and a school board election that installed members sympathetic to integrating schools, he became superintendent again 15 months later.

Cortines, 76, spoke Tuesday night at the Norton Simon Museum during a fundraising event for the Pasadena Education Foundation. Before the event, he took a moment to field a few questions from PW via email.

PW: How did your experiences in Pasadena and elsewhere help prepare you for the bigger challenges you’re now facing at LAUSD? 

Cortines: During my tenure in PUSD, desegregation and the anti-busing movement were in full force, we worked collaboratively and without the anger, divisiveness and name-calling that escalated the controversy in the LA Unified School District.

LAUSD’s deficit rose an additional $131 million for the current school year and an additional $235 million for the 2009-10 school year. Aside from cutting back on summer school and teacher layoffs, what other means do you anticipate using to make up the shortfall? 

We are looking at everything. There will be more layoffs throughout the district, including many at the central headquarters on Beaudry, the local district offices and numerous departments. More employees will keep their jobs if we are able to reach a compromise with our bargaining units regarding unpaid furlough days and freezes in salary, including raises awarded for additional education or years of experience. We are also exploring assigning more employees to work from September through June or closer to that traditional school year rather than 12 months a year. The district will also postpone the purchase of textbooks, delay some routine maintenance and reduce the bus transportation provided for many students who attend magnet schools or other schools far from their neighborhood.

Your situation in inheriting a massive and suddenly growing deficit seems to parallel the trouble that President Obama is facing. 

There is a great deal of similarity regarding the economic challenges. However, President Obama is hopeful, and so am I. Consider the financial burdens for the LAUSD. Because of the California economic crisis, the bar keeps moving downward for our budget. We are told to cut one amount, we do. A week later, we are told to cut even deeper. Within the space of a few days, the governor’s office directed this district to cut another $68 million from the 2009-10 budget and to cut $62 million from the funds spent transporting students. How can you plan if you are always reacting?

LA’s new arts high school had a vast overrun in cost, winding up at $232 million when it was supposed to cost $87 million. How can the LAUSD better gain control of its spending and inspire more confidence from the government and the public going forward? 

The Central Los Angeles Area New High School No. 9 project is part of the Two-Semester Neighborhood School Program and is required to ensure every LAUSD student has the opportunity to attend a school in their neighborhood, operating on a traditional two-semester calendar by 2012. This unique school includes a theater building, an art and music building, a library, a dance/administration building, a gymnasium, a cafeteria, turf fields and a parking structure. This school incorporates specific sustainable design measures to enhance building and student performance including: energy efficiency, ample day-lighting in classrooms, improved acoustical performances, use of low-emitting materials and high efficiency irrigation systems. When [it] opens in September, it will join the Belmont Zone that already includes Belmont High School, the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex and the Roybal Learning Center. This flagship school’s overall design was extremely complex. The design was something even the Division of the State Architect had never seen before. So, coupled with the rise in construction costs throughout the industry and the complex design, the school’s budget increased. However, through strict oversight and monthly updates, LAUSD managed through these increases and continues to do so for every school project. 

You’re most famous for saying you’re a teacher above all else. Do you think that most administrators share that attitude?

According to my parents, I came home from school in the fourth grade and announced that I wanted to be a teacher. It is not only what I do, it is who I am. Even during these tough times, I focus on our mission: Educating our students. When I was superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, I cut the budget every year for six years — and student achievement still went up.

What gives you hope for the future of public education? 

Today I was at Norwood Elementary School, and what I saw in the classrooms gives me hope. I saw children learning and teachers engaged with those students regardless of the financial situation. Later, I sat with 100 leaders of nonprofit and other organizations who want to know how they can get involved to help the district.

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