By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | L.A. Newspaper Group/Daily News
Superintendent of Schools Ramon Cortines, center, is planning to retire in the spring. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines says he is "tired." He has been lauded for steering the school district through tough economic times. ((Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer)
07/22/2010 - Ending months of speculation, Los Angeles Unified schools Superintendent Ramon Cortines said Wednesday he plans to retire next spring from a career in public education that spans six decades.
Cortines, who turns 78 on Thursday, has already vacated his office, ceding the space to Deputy Superintendent John Deasy, the district's recently hired No. 2 who many believe will be the next chief of schools.
In an interview Wednesday, Cortines said it's time to step aside and let the district - plagued by high turnover rates among senior administrators - find a leader who can stay for the long haul.
"I have to lay the groundwork for transition...," Cortines said. "This district needs to have continuity, flexibility, accountability.
"It's never a good time to go," Cortines said inside his new compact office, about half the size of those occupied by most senior district administrators.
He admitted the last two years of budget cuts and rapid reform have been exhausting.
"I'm tired," he said.
Now in his sixth decade in public education - starting as a sixth-grade teacher in Monterey and moving on to superintendent posts in Pasadena, San Jose, San Francisco, running New York City's Department of Education and even working as an education adviser in the Clinton administration – Cortines said his last post has been the toughest.
In the last 18 months Cortines has had to slash more than $1.5 billion from the district's annual budget – laying off thousands of teachers, administrators, office workers, custodians and bus drivers.
Cuts have also reduced the school year by five days, eliminated or seriously eroded arts and music programs, increased class sizes and student to counselor ratios – all things anathema to Cortines' education philosophy.
At the same time, Cortines has also overseen LAUSD's most ambitious education reform effort in years. The School Choice plan allows non-profit groups and charter school operators to run district schools.
His calm during the storm has led everyone from school board members to union leaders to refer to him as "irreplaceable."
"He has singularly held this district together through the worst economic crisis and through some very politically turbulent issues, but our partners still come to table to speak with him and even call him at home," said LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer.
"I don't no any one else who can do that."
Many said Cortines ability to connect with all stakeholders in the education community comes down to the respect he's earned after spending more than a half century working in schools and for children.
"There is no denying that we have had our policy disagreements from time to time," said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter School Association.
The association is currently suing the school district for failing to comply with state laws for sharing public school space with the independently run public schools.
However, Wallace said he personally holds Cortines as "the definition of a public servant."
"He didn't have to take this job, and yet he's steered this district through some incredibly difficult challenges," Wallace said.
"People recognize him as an example of what public service is all about... And people are inspired by that."
A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers los Angeles, also said he has a great respect for Cortines, who this year helped negotiate a furlough deal with the teacher's union that saved the jobs of more than 2,000 teachers, counselors and librarians.
"Cortines handled the recklessness of the school board majority in a very sane and reasonable way and he's probably the only one who could have done that... Like only Nixon could go to China," Duffy said.
Cortines considers his ability to keep the district focused on kids and classroom instruction, even during these difficult times, his greatest skill.
A work-a-holic who starts his day at the office at around 4 a.m., Cortines has finally scheduled a vacation for himself – the first time since he's been at LAUSD.
District officials have said a nation-wide search will be conducted to find a replacement for Cortines.
However many believe that Deasy, a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation director, was hired to step into that role later this year.
Deasy is expected to arrive at the district Aug. 2.
Ramon Cortines, a history lesson
Here are the highlights of Ramon Cortines' five decades in public education:
1972-1984: Served as superintendent of Pasadena Unified School District on two separate occasions
1993-95: Head of New York City Department of Education
2000: Interim superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District
2006-08: Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles for education
2009: Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District
Spring 2011: Anticipated retirement