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Analysis: Graham lawsuit poses serious questions for LAUSD board

Michael Janofsky | February 26, 2015



LAUSD Superintedent Ray Cortines

We’ve all seen this in person or on TV: One lawyer says something provocative or inappropriate, and the opposing lawyer leaps to his feet, saying “Objection, your honor.”

“Sustained,” says the judge. “The jury will disregard that last remark.”

After yesterday, we’re now all in the jury box, trying to figure out what to make of Scot Graham’s third and latest lawsuit against the district with his descriptions of sexual misconduct by Superintendent Ramon Cortines and the atmosphere of intimidation and sexual intemperance inside LA Unified headquarters.

We also have to decide whether unseemly remarks Graham attributes to Cortines about Monica Garcia and the rest of the board deserve to be carefully considered or summarily disregarded.

Sadly, though, in the confines of LA Unified, a school district that seldom gets out of its own way, it really doesn’t matter.

Whether true or false, the images shaped by Graham’s characterizations are hard to shake: Cortines, as a sexual predator; Cortines, describing Garcia as a “fat slovenly lesbian”; Cortines, regarding the board as a group of special interest ciphers.

Only a court can decide the veracity of such claims as they create a hostile work environment. But the possibility than even some of it might be true will linger, undermining whatever trust parents, teachers and board members have in a man who led the district as superintendent twice before, making him the board’s singular choice to succeed John Deasy last year, paying him $300,000 for an eight-month contract. 

It’s hard to imagine that any number of apologies and denials from Cortines would erase some of the images Graham has described. Never mind whatever happened between Graham and Cortines. Cortines had previously confessed to one incident of “consensual spontaneous adult behavior” with Graham; anything beyond that, what’s the difference.

More important are two other issues — one for a court to decide, the other for the district.

The first is whether there is truth to assertions that Cortines or anyone else has created a workplace environment that others would regard as hostile and whether the conditions rise to the level of illegality.

The second is whether a school board that has fought mightily to shed its own image of dysfunction can sustain a level of trust in the superintendent.

This could be especially challenging for Garcia, the longest-serving member of the board, whom Graham singled out to recount the ugliest of the words he attributed to Cortines. While graphic descriptions of sexual encounters between Graham and Cortines were included in two earlier lawsuits brought by Graham, the words Graham recalled Cortines using to describe Garcia and the board were not.

Perhaps rightly, Garcia chose yesterday not to issue a statement in response to the lawsuit. Anything she said would have brought more attention to what Graham attributed to Cortines.

Was Graham right in what he claims Cortines said? From Garcia’s point of view, what difference does it make. Could she ever be sure either way? Could she ever believe Cortines’s denial? Could she ever accept an apology?

By extension, the same questions are now before the other six board members, who have to decide whether they believe Graham, irrespective of whatever a court might decide. If the members are contemplating the same uncertainties that confront Garcia, they are also reexamining their relationship with a superintendent they thought they could trust.

Maybe the first question for the board to consider is why the district refused to investigate Graham’s original charges against Cortines before he was brought back last year. The allegations were a central part of his first two lawsuits and remain the core of the third. Teachers are held in teacher “jail” on far less serious allegations.

Cortines was hired last October as an interim replacement for Deasy. He was to be the steady, experienced hand until the board found a suitable permanent replacement.

Initially, he was expected to remain through the current school year, yet at a recent board meeting, members joked that they might even ask him to stay a second year.

If any of Graham’s assertions are to be believed, let alone proved, it seems doubtful they would make such jokes any longer.

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