Jim Newton, LA Times Op-Ed |
December 28, 2010 - Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Ramon C. Cortines is the rare member of this region's body politic who has mastered the correct response to his agency's challenges: He has devoted himself wholeheartedly to his work and managed it with harnessed, constructive rage.
Cortines is preparing to leave LAUSD, and his impending departure places the district in a precarious position. Under his stewardship, test scores at Los Angeles schools improved despite gigantic budget shortfalls. And at the same time, Cortines made structural changes that improved the district's management. His record will be hard for a successor to match.
Last week, Cortines and I met at district headquarters to discuss his tenure. We talked in his exquisitely modest office — a small, nondescript room filled with standard-issue office furniture. There's a map of the district on one wall, a writing board on another, and nothing else; absent are the proclamations and pictures of famous people that adorn the offices of the self-important. As we spoke, Cortines sometimes paused to gaze out at the rain and other times became so animated that he prowled the carpet, pacing and rapping on the wall for emphasis. He's a thinker, and a restless one.
Cortines is 78 years old, a veteran of school districts that include Pasadena, New York, San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles, where he also served a six-month stint as interim superintendent in 2000. He is energetic and candid, and connected to the district at its grass-roots. His surprise visits to campuses, during which he inspects classrooms with the keen eye of a self-described "neat freak," have been a staple of his tenure.
"I almost always visit the cafeteria," he said in our talk. "Is it as clean as my kitchen? Are the women in uniform? How do they treat the children?"
Not everything has gone well under Cortines, who returned to LAUSD in 2008. Progress, as measured by test scores, has been notable in elementary schools, spottier in higher grades. His tussles with an intransigent teachers union have been frustrating for both sides. His relationship with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been uneven, as the mayor and district have occasionally bickered over their shared responsibility for a group of schools that includes the mayor's alma mater, Roosevelt High.
But Cortines is a tough infighter, strengthened by his national reputation and willingness to say out loud what others only whisper. Regarding Villaraigosa, he stressed his appreciation for the mayor, whom he once served as a deputy, but also complained that his former boss sometimes takes the district for granted. "It's not the mayor's partnership," he said of the schools he and Villaraigosa oversee together. "It's a partnership for Los Angeles."
As that remark suggests, Cortines has navigated Los Angeles' dense politics with a style uniquely his own. Where many leaders arrive for an editorial board meeting with a retinue of political or security aides, Cortines comes alone. During our discussion, he was interrupted once for a phone call, but otherwise spoke for nearly two hours, never asking to go off the record. A press aide sat outside but never entered the office.
Politicians crave his approval, but he grants it sparingly. "A lot of political types want to use the system," he said. "They want photo ops at schools, but I don't go to them. How does that improve third-grade reading?" Education, he says with characteristic verve, is not about "short, cryptic sentences." It is about service to the classroom, responsibility for the betterment of children.
He sees strength in the district's rank-and-file, its teachers and principals, bus drivers and technicians. He agrees with Villaraigosa that teachers have been poorly represented by their union, United Teachers Los Angeles. In fact, the day we talked, he had finally run out of patience with UTLA over $17 million in federal money for some of the district's poorest campuses. UTLA dragged its feet on extending the school day at campuses receiving the money. When the federal government threatened to take the money back, Cortines acted on his own. "I've given approval," he said. "If they want to take me to court, fine."
Cortines prides himself on his independence and his toughness. But he melts when he talks about teaching. He recalls with obvious joy his own days spent in classrooms, and he relishes seeing excellent teachers in action. He remembers one visit to the 122nd Street Elementary School where a teacher was eliciting the elegant participation of her students. Cortines, unimpressed by politicians or power, was moved. "For the first time," he remembered, "I knew what Socrates felt."
Cortines will leave with unfinished work. Although the district has improved test scores even as he's been forced to cut $1.5 billion in spending, poor children still struggle, and the affluent often leave at the first opportunity. He knows further improvement will require sustained attention.
I told him I worried that his departure might offer those resistant to change their chance to backslide. He looked out the window for a while at that and then agreed: "You're right to be worried."
smf's 2¢ from 24º53' N, 45º18' W: Jim Newton is writing here as The Times' Editor at Large: one must assume he represents the LA's Times' official opinion. No mention here is made of Cortines successor-apparent, superintendent-in-waiting John Deasy - and one must read something into this failure-to-mention and the admonition on the degree-of-difficulty of the threat in the impending succession. If Cortines is to exit on or about April 1 as he has announced the Board of Ed should be in the midst of a superintendent search now...and they are not. So one (these 'ones" can easily be substituted with the first person singular, '(un)conventional wisdom' or 'the handwriting on the wall', as is your wont) assumes that it is the intent of the Board of Ed to appoint Dr. Deasy as interim-supe and omit, postpone or cancel a national search in a bit of penny-wise/pound-foolishness.
The LAUSD Board of Education's most important job is the selection of the superintendent.
The Board of Education of the City of Los Angles is the most important school board in the nation and a national search is really what is called for. If Dr. Deasy is the right person - and indeed he may be - he would rise to the top in the search process. Of course, a national search would rise the specter of Michelle Rhee (the Sarah Palin of public education) coming to LA ...but - hey - bring her on!