September 18, 2014 10:12 AM :: Running big school systems is complex, sometimes messy work that, at times, is rife with conflict and controversy. But is any single district prone to as much conflict, controversy, and, frankly, drama, as Los Angeles Unified?
In the past month alone:
- Superintendent John Deasy halted the district's nationally watched deal with Apple Inc. and the educational publisher Pearson to provide iPads loaded with a new digital curriculum—the first phase of a $1.3 billion technology initiative;
- Deasy and his former chief academic officer, Jaime Aquino, have defended themselves against critics who believe that emails recently made public between the two senior leaders and Apple and Pearson prove the deal was rigged to favor the two companies;
- Deasy upped the ante, filing a public records request seeking to reveal emails and other correspondence between board members and numerous technology and educational publishing companies; and
- United Teachers Los Angeles—already sparring with Deasy over contract negotiations and a hotly disputed reconstitution of Crenshaw High School, among other issues—called for the school board to fire the superintendent.(LA School Report has the UTLA letter urging the board to put an end to the superintendent's contract last month.)
Remember, it was just one year ago that Deasy was threatening to resign because of his concerns that the majority of the school board was thwarting his reform agenda, including the rollout of the iPad initiative. A week of speculation about his fate—which prompted a major public relations campaign from certain influential corners of the Los Angeles community to keep Deasy—ended when the board gave him a satisfactory performance review and extended his contract.
Photo: Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy explains the need to transform Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles starting in the following academic year, after the board approved a drastic overhaul during a board meeting in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2013. --Damian Dovarganes/AP-File>>
Now it seems we might be at the same juncture again with Deasy, who is due for his next review from the school board next month.
So what gives with L.A. Unified? Some of the drama, of course, is derived from the current personalities involved, but is there something inherent in that system that makes it more likely to court controversy? And I know that there are other districts that could rival Los Angeles: Chicago, Newark, and Philadelphia come to mind.
Still, I've covered the L.A. district off and on since 2006, and it's hard to recall an extended period of relative calm for the nation's second-largest school system since Roy Romer stepped down as superintendent. There was the months-long drama when then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa came close to wresting some control over the district from the elected school board, stopped eventually by the courts. (And let us not forget the brinksmanship of the then-board members who managed to recruit and hire a new superintendent—retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral David Brewer—before the legal issues around Villaraigosa's takeover attempt had been settled.)
There were some rocky waters too during the relatively short leadership stint of veteran urban administrator Ramon Cortines, who had the misfortune of being in charge during the height of California's fiscal crisis when school districts were pummeled by budget cuts.
And in 2013, three races for seats on the Los Angeles Unified board drew eye-popping amounts of cash from influential outsiders such as $1 million from then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and $250,000 from StudentsFirst, the education advocacy organization founded by former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.
Governance is certainly a challenge for a district of 650,000 students that sprawls well beyond the municipal borders of Los Angeles. And with an elected board in charge, conflicts seem much more likely to spill out into the open compared with mayorally controlled districts in cities like Boston and New York.
The hard-charging teachers' union is also a factor, especially under the new leadership of Alex Caputo-Pearl, who is among a dozen teachers who lost their jobs at Crenshaw High in a 2012 reorganization and have since filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the district and Deasy.