In a final (?) conversation, Cortines chides Broad, critiques the district
Mike Szymanski | December 10, 2015
In what may be his last public appearance as superintendent of LA Unified, Ramon Cortines last night spoke to about 300 people in a wide-ranging discussion that touched on many of the hot-button issues now confronting the district.
Sitting alongside Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who served as moderator, Cortines said Eli Broad’s plan to expand charter schools in the district was “ill advised” and that the charter wars underway in the district could not only hurt education, but the entire city. He also said he had warned that the district’s computer system was going to face problems and that he even suggested the district not buy the Beaudry headquarters building because it was “flawed.”
And, he criticized the elected school board system, saying that they sometimes hamper his job. “If they do their jobs correctly, they represent the community,” he said, adding, “Too often, they represent their own ideology and political issues.”
Cortines, 83, is ending his third run as LA Unified superintendent, with plans to step down before the end of the month, and probably sooner. The board is in the final stages of selecting a successor, who would be the 16th district superintendent since 1937.
As far as the Great Public Schools Now plan, the offshoot of the Broad foundation initiative introduced over the summer, Cortines said, “I do know Eli and I worked with him off and on for years … I think he was ill advised, I think that somebody brought him an elixir without having it been tested to see if it would really do what it’s promised to do.”
He noted that “the rhetoric has been toned down” but said the growing charter disputes “will not be good for this city.”
Of the district’s current group of charters, Cortines said some are not good about taking special need students with severe disabilities. He noted some exceptions, but said, “Some charters get carried away, saying ‘Yes we have x number of children with special needs,’ but they are not the severely handicapped that the regular schools deal with every day.”
“A city divided on education issues will not make the economic progress that it should,” Cortines said. “That is why we have to collaborate not only for education, but for the economy of this city. A city divided does not do well. We need to learn to disagree in a respectful way.”
In a statement, Swati Pandey, spokeswoman for The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, said “Ray Cortines reached out to Mr. Broad this morning to offer his support for Great Public Schools Now, and Mr. Broad encouraged him to meet with the leadership of that organization. It will take a collaborative effort by the community, educators, funders, the district and many others to ensure every family in Los Angeles has access to a high-quality public school, and we look forward to working together on behalf of our city’s students.”
The conversation played to a capacity crowd at the Los Angeles Times building and was sponsored by Education Matters, which receives some money from the Broad Foundation. With LAUSD school board president Steve Zimmer and vice president George McKenna sitting in the front row, Cortines invited parents and students to bring their issues to him in his last remaining days.
Lopez joked about Cortines even leaving for real, saying, “I was in his office this morning, but I saw no packing boxes.”
At one point, Cortines got up and said, “I could leave right now.”
Cortines took over 13 months ago after John Deasy left following a series of problems. Cortines said, “People say look at what you’ve done in a year with this school district. I haven’t done a damn thing. Let me tell you I’ve worked with many of the people in this audience, I’ve worked with the unions, the labor partners, and I believe that classified people are not second rate but that they are important in keeping our schools going.”
He was asked if he gave away too much to the unions in a new contract at a time the district is facing budget problems again.
“No, I needed to get peace and calm in this district so we could focus on teaching and learning because we were not focusing on it before,” he said. “We were focusing on wearing our red (UTLA) shirts all the time, rather than boys and girls understanding that this is a teacher that cares about me and that can help me learn and engage.”
He did credit the unions with helping him. “Who fixed the district the last time it was in trouble? I did. When I say ‘I did’, I don’t mean I did it alone. The district unions trusted me, they did not like me, but trusted me, and each of them gave me seven furlough days. It wasn’t the district or board or superintendent that kept us from going bankrupt, it was the employees of this district.”
As for the board, which serves as his boss, he said he has not had a problem as other superintendents have. But, he said, “They are not my buddies, I don’t drink beer with them. I have a relationship with every board member.”
He said he is unhappy with the evaluation of teachers, and pointed out that he can walk onto any campus and ask a third or fourth grader what they think of their principal. “When they roll their eyes, you don’t need to go any further, it sure is better than 12 pages of written evaluation,” he said.
He said parents need choices with charter, pilot and magnet schools, but there should be more coordination. He pointed out that he has data showing that 97 students left charter schools to go back to pilot schools this year, but he didn’t want to “wave the sign” and note any trend.
“Schools are struggling,” he said. “We need to get on a plan to work together.”
He pointed out that the district may have been duped by “hucksters,” and that he has been disappointed with the professional development programs offered to teachers this year.
With the problems involving the MiSiS computer system and iPads, he said, “We are all responsible.” He noted that when he left the second time he ran the school district, he was concerned that the data systems were not talking to each other. “They never had a plan to back it up,” he insisted.
He also said, “Teachers and administrators said we are not ready for roll out and we did it anyway.”
Although the technology issues are back on track, and he recently appointed Frances Gipson (who was in the audience) to head the issues, he said, “We were very naïve at that time.”
As for the selection of his successor, Cortines said he is not involved and does not know any of the candidates. Lopez wondered if anyone applying for the job should have his head examined.
“That’s not true,” Cortines objected. “This district needs a manager, a chief executive of a $12 billion business.” He said he reads the business pages every day about companies of a similar size, and said, “We could have been another VW meltdown.”
He did say that his experience as a teacher and principal helped him, but said his successor didn’t have to have a teaching credential. “Everyone in this room is an educator,” he said.
The revision of No Child Left Behind law, signed into law this morning by President Obama, creates a pause for LA Unified, and Cortines said, “I think this school district does not do well with a pause; it needs someone monitoring and watching it and working with people to improve it.”
During a Q-and-A period with the audience, a special education assistant from the San Fernando Valley asked for help because they have no income over the summer months. The answer caused some grumbles.
“I’m going to say something, and it’s not going to be popular,” Cortines said. “This district has moved too far to be the social agency of this city, rather than the educational institution of this city, and it needs to move more towards education. This district cannot be responsible for all the social issues and ills of this city, I’m just sorry.”
Cortines has not said when he’s leaving, but he is slowly saying good-bye.
“No, we are not the greatest,” he said in summary. “We are a struggling school system; schools are struggling in America because families are struggling in America.”
* Adds comment from the Broad Foundation