A Conversation With John Deasy
Hillel Aron | August 24, 2012
Last Friday afternoon in his office high up on the 24th floor of the district’s downtown headquarters, LAUSD superintendent John Deasy seemed both excited about the school year that had just started and also clear about the realities of the complex task ahead of him.
Deasy taught math and science before becoming an administrator and then a superintendent of progressively larger school districts (including Santa Monica) and finally ending up as former LAUSD superintendent Ramon Cortines’ number two and being promoted to Superintendent of the country’s second largest school district last January.
Just a few days before the first board meeting of the year, the energetic 52 year old Rhode Island native was alternately candid and cagey on topics ranging from board politics to Sacramento gamesmanship.
There was just one problem with the interview I had arrived to conduct.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” said Deasy in his still-strong New England accent. “I’ve never read a blog in my life.”
You’ve been on the job…
That’s what it feels like. I’ve been on the job, um, a year and half.
What’s surprised you the most?
Inside of LAUSD – It’s not a city or a community; it’s like 29 separate cities. People ask, “Do you get along with the mayor?” Well, there’s 20 of them. People don’t realize that. I work with a lot of mayors! Mayor of Carson, mayor of Gardena, Mayor of San Bernardino…. I thought it was a giant unified system, but it’s really many discrete communities that we work together with.
I read in the LA Times that you were going to get a $10,000 bonus if you met a certain number of benchmarks. Did you meet those benchmarks?
I can’t say until August 31. I have the data – it’s embargoed. My joy and happiness and amazement at the data is not embargoed, but the actual numbers are. Even if I did make it, there’s no $10,000 to give anybody. You’ve got 12,000 people who lost their job in this one year alone. So yeah, that’s not gonna happen.
Talk to me about your relationship with the school board. I think a lot of people don’t realize that you serve at the pleasure of the school board, so they can basically fire you at any time.
That’s correct. But I don’t do my job to keep my job. I do this job to do what has to be done for kids. You work with seven individuals, all of whom have large staffs. And there are other individuals who also insert themselves. There are politicians in Sacramento, politicians in DC, there are Mayors. There are funders. The board is but one of a set of people who get themselves involved in the work.
How much of it is politics? Because to me, it seems like there’s this four to three split, and it could go one way or another. Is there a lot of politics involved? Are you like an executive?
Yeah. I’m an executive in a political situation. I’m a CEO of a $7 billion organization, and this is not an executive board, it’s a politically elected board, so there are a lot of politics involved.
That’s one level. Another level is the understandable tension between the board setting policy and wanting to run the system and the superintendent running the system and not setting policy. Those things come into it all the time.
The board has moved itself to some ideological camps on issues, so that’s why you see four to three, three to four. It does consume an enormous amount of my time. And sometimes that time is well spent, and helps move a large agenda forward, and other times it feels like it’s kind of fractured. Not unified.
You recently said that you wished you had a real partner in UTLA.
I said it would be good to have a real partner in the leadership of UTLA. There’s a real difference between the leadership and the membership.
Fair enough. Is that something you felt for long time, or more recently?
It’s become apparent more recently. There’s an enormous political structure- you’ve got CTA, UTLA, and there is just not a desire whatsoever about a transformation agenda that we’re setting forward.
Do you have any hope that that’s gonna change?
Oh I have a lot of hope it will change. I hope all the time. [He pauses.] Do you want to ask if I think it’s going to change?
No, I don’t. No. There’s nine other unions, I don’t have those experiences with the other unions. And in some cases, their transformation work has been amazing.
There’s a rumor that you were somehow behind these lawsuit [like Doe v. Deasy or the upcoming Vergara v. California], that maybe you were in on some of the planning sessions. Have you heard this rumor?
[chuckling] No, I have not heard this rumor. Once you get served, there’s a lot of conversation. There’s talk about other lawsuits in the state of California. People are not quiet about when they’re thinking- they don’t sneak up to you and drop a writ on your desk. People say, “I’m thinking of suing you.” So you do get to know about [them]. Do you construct and plan? I mean, we think about who we might sue, if that’s what you mean….
What I’m wondering is, the people that sued in Doe V. Deasy, were you meeting with them before they filed?
No, I don’t know who they are. They’re ‘Doe.’ I don’t know who they are.
I actually don’t know Scott Wittlin. I know Lucia because he was involved in Sacramento for a long time.
Just to reiterate, the answer is that you were not in on these planning…
No, you don’t plan it.
Someone’s gotta plan a lawsuit.
Well they do.
But you weren’t there?
How frustrating is it for you to have AB 5 come back to life in Sacramento right as the Doe v. Deasy decision is being negotiated?
I’m perplexed. Is it disappointing that we can’t pass a bill that if you rape a child you can’t fired really quickly [referring to SB 1530]? Yeah, it’s like beyond disappointing. It’s disgusting, actually. Is it disappointing that the current act [The Stull Act], even though it’s kind of a crappy act, has a very strong amendment to it in 1999, that says that certain achievements should be part of it, and up until now we’ve never used it, now we’re planning on using it and now we’re just gonna get rid of that? Yeah, it’s really disappointing. Is it odd to me that this happens in the middle of once this lawsuit pops up? I think I find the timing unusual.
What I find more perplexing is that CTA, which is like this very powerful organization, have spent every ounce of their capital making sure nothing happens to QEIA [the quality education investment act] – a funding source, the quality education investment act. It sends very large sums of money to certain schools. This bill allows you to raise class size, and takes away QEIA funds – this is how AB 5 is being funded. I find that perplexing. I don’t understand it.
Do you consider yourself a school reformer?
I consider myself an educator.
You don’t consider yourself part of a movement?
It is a movement all right. [But] I think that [creates] two camps– the reformers and the non-reformers – and then you work yourself up to, ‘I like Michelle Rhee’ and ‘I don’t like Michelle Rhee.’ I don’t get involved in that stuff. Unfortunately it’s been divisive, it’s not been helpful.
Edited and condensed for clarity.