By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer
Click photo to enlarge
LAUSD Superintendant Ramon Cortines as kids sing "Happy Birthday" to him at Gulf Elementary
26 July, 2010 -- Los Angeles schools chief Ramon Cortines sped through the halls of Widney Special Education Center in South Los Angeles one day last week, forcing his tour guides - all at least 20 years younger than him - to double their pace just to keep up.
It was 9:45 a.m. and Cortines had already gone through e-mails, returned phone calls and attended one event. Three school visits were next on his schedule - all to be completed before noon.
Dressed in his usual crisp, white shirt, marked with the initials "RCC" on the breast pocket, and a moss-green Hermes tie, Cortines bolted from classroom to classroom. He slowed down only to shake the hands of teachers, students and janitors, or to quiz an administrator on test scores and attendance rates.
Just a few hours after news had broken about his decision to retire this spring, reporters also called Cortines on his cell phone and met him on campus, peppering him with questions.
The veteran educator charmed the news cameras one minute, and chided substandard conditions in a classroom he observed the next.
"Some people get caught in the trappings of this job ... for me it's always been about the work," Cortines said.
"I plan to stay dedicated to the work until the day I leave."
After celebrating his 78th birthday Thursday, Cortines said he's ready to "pass the baton" after an education career nearly six decades long.
However, the veteran educator lists a healthy number of tasks he'd like to finish in the months he has left at the helm of the nation's second-largest school district.
Intentionally vague about his exact retirement date, Cortines said he wants to stay long enough to tackle the district's 2011-12 budget, which will need to address an anticipated shortfall of at least $240 million.
The district also has yet to implement its largest reform effort to date - the School Choice plan, which allows nonprofit organizations and charter operators to bid to operate public schools.
The first round of participating schools will open under their new management this fall and the operators for the second round of campuses will be selected in February.
Cortines also hopes to at least lay the groundwork for a better relationship with charter operators and advocates in Los Angeles - a goal he's had since he joined the Los Angeles Unified School District as deputy superintendent in 2008.
Currently, the LAUSD is being sued by the California Charter Schools Association for what it claims is the district's inability to comply with state laws and share public space with the independently run schools.
Cortines also laments his inability to motivate and engage the local teachers union to play a bigger role in reform plans.
"It's hard to leave with so much unfinished business," Cortines said.
Perhaps some of his urgency comes from the political pressure he's felt recently.
Last month Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa publicly scolded Cortines and the district for moving too slowly with reforms.
"We have to stop biting at the edges of reform," Villaraigosa said during a City Hall news conference that Cortines was not invited to.
A week later, LAUSD board president and Villaraigosa ally Monica Garcia also asked him to "move faster" with school turnaround efforts during a board meeting.
Cortines won't admit to any political tension with the school board, most of whose members were elected with Villaraigosa's support.
He also won't comment on troubles with the mayor, whose bid to take over the school district failed in his first term.
However, he admitted that the mayor was one of few professional colleagues and elected officials who did not call him to talk about his retirement announcement.
"I don't understand that," Cortines said, shaking his head.
When asked to comment about Cortines' departure, Villaraigosa e-mailed a two-paragraph statement thanking the superintendent for his "service and leadership, especially during the current budget crisis."
"We are now focused on finding a new superintendent who will drive reform and put students and families first."
But in the company of first-graders at Gulf Elementary in Harbor City on Thursday, Cortines had no time to ponder such political drama.
During a math lesson the spry school chief grabbed an empty chair at a desk and sat next to a young boy who looked a bit surprised by his seatmate.
Cortines crouched over the boy and pointed toward the textbook page that the teacher was explaining.
Minutes later in another classroom he was beaming when Gulf kindergartners sang Happy Birthday to him.
"You really know how to make an old man happy," Cortines said.
Teachers and school workers who come in contact with Cortines often comment on his genuine concern for students and the adults who work directly with them.
At Harbor City Elementary, Cortines approached plant manager Johnny Ray Young to thank him for his help in keeping the campus clean and ask him how things were going.
"He makes good eye contact and pays attention so you know he cares," Young said after the encounter.
Cortines brings up his own childhood and how at just 17 days old he was adopted from a Texas orphanage.
"I was a brown, emaciated, boy with sores," Cortines says.
"Things could have been very different for me."
After seven attempts at retirement - the first one nearly 20 years ago - Cortines said he plans to spend more time with friends, traveling and pruning in his English garden at his ranch in Tulare County.
Of course, there is plenty of time between now and then for the notoriously impatient Cortines, who cannot sit still long enough for a meal on most days.
"I'll be working my darnedest until the very end for the kids of this district," he said.
"Don't tell me there is one kid out there that cannot learn."