Cortines promises fixes for LAUSD’s flawed computer program

updates1In his first open address to the LA Unified school board since he was rehired as superintendent last week, Ramon Cortines promised accountability, transparency and constant communication.

“I know the buck stops here,” he told the seven members during a brief address that included an update on the district’s flawed student data software program, MiSiS.

Cortines, who got an early start on the job Monday morning and spent the day in intensive meetings with the district’s top leadership, quipped, “I’ve been here two days going on 10 years.”

Then he outlined a series of changes to MiSiS that will be effective immediately.

At the top of the list is a two-month extension to Dec. 1, from the previous deadline, Oct. 23, for schools to submit the number of students enrolled in the free and reduced meal program, which determines the allocation of federal dollars to individual campuses for low-income students.

A school is eligible for Title I money only if at least half of the student body is enrolled in the federal meals program. A school receives even more money per pupil if at least 65 percent of low-income students qualify. When a campus reaches a threshold above 85 percent combined free and reduced lunch it becomes exempt from collecting applications for four years.

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Embezzlement, Poisoning, Murder? Welcome to LAUSD, Mr. Cortines

Law_&_Order_LA_Title_CardIn case there were any chance LA Unified‘s new superintendent, Ramon Cortines, had forgotten just how bizarro school board meetings can be, his first one back today as head of the district included accusations of embezzlement, murder and sexual harassment.

Welcome back, Mr. Superintendent.

While the school board voted unanimously to approve the $300,000 a year contract Cortines was offered to shepherd the district out of its current troubled state — $50,000 less than what his predecessor earned — a handful of speakers criticized him for the sexual harassment lawsuit that followed his departure in 2011.

During the public speaking portion of the brief meeting — during which anyone can have three minutes to address the board on any topic they please — Patricia McAllister, who identified herself as a substitute teacher who was fired, took it a step further.

She hurled a litany of accusations at the board, saying former Superintendent John Deasy “embezzled” billions of dollars from the district and claiming Cortines was guilty of sexually harassing district employees. Then in a Law & Order-type twist, she accused unknown persons of poisoning or murdering the late board member, Marguerite LaMotte, and recommended that an autopsy be performed.

Another speaker, Lady Cage Barile, addressed the board to oppose the return of Cortines. She also cited the circumstances under which he left his previous tenure as superintendent and called him “a disgrace these kids are to look up to.”

The sexual harassment case against Cortines was thrown out twice by a judge, and a $250,000 settlement that was to be paid to his accuser, fell apart.

Cortines, sitting beside board President Richard Vladovic, looked on impassively as the speakers criticized him and did not comment.


Commentary: Please, school board, focus on our children

Hispanic children LAUSD school board

By Michelle Crames

My daughter started Kindergarten this year, and part of why I enrolled her in public school was that things were getting better, and my belief that our family’s energy and resources could contribute to bettering our community. Two months after her start, we learn that Superintendent John Deasy, who has provided leadership during this turnaround, turned in his letter of resignation to the school board.

As a parent of three young children, I know it takes at least two parties to fight. Regardless of what you think of Deasy’s resignation, we all want to minimize the impact and distraction inevitable with such a leadership change. Can we please refocus our energy on what matters most, our children’s education?

I believe Deasy achieved a lot, but he certainly made mistakes. However, during the last several months, like many parents. I am most disappointed that our focus has shifted away from what is important, which is the kids. As an outsider, I feel that more time is being spent bickering and politicking than working to provide students with the best possible education.

The parents’ voice was largely absent in the recent feud between the school board and Deasy, but now needs to be heard. Lets put this behind us and get back to work on what matters.

In a city where 80 percent of LAUSD students live around or below the poverty line, the American dream requires great schools for our children. America is a land of equal opportunity, and access to quality education is the basis of that.

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City measure would extend LAUSD school board term to 5 1/2 years

Steve Zimmer takes the oath of office for the LA Unified school board

Steve Zimmer takes the oath of office for the LA Unified school board

The Los Angeles City Council is considering a measure that would extend the terms of the next school board election winners to 5 1/2 years, from the usual 4.

The longer terms would only apply to the next two school board voting cycles, bringing the board elections into even-numbered years that correspond with other city and state elections.

The change is part of the city’s effort to enhance voter turnout by consolidating elections. Because of periodic orphan scheduling, school board seats are sometimes filled with only a small percentage of registered voters determining the outcome.

In the case of George McKenna’s runoff victory over Alex Johnson for the District 1 seat in August, just 9 percent of the district’s voters cast ballots. In 2013, only 23 percent of voters citywide participated in the mayoral election.

Several steps remain before the new schedule goes into effect. The City Council is expected to vote on Wednesday to ask the City Attorney to write an ordinance that would appear on the March 3, 2015 ballot, effectively changing the City Charter.

Then the council would have to approve the wording, probably by the end of the month, for the measure to seek final approval from voters.

The first group of school board members to be affected would be McKenna, Tamar Galatzan, Bennett Kayser and Richard Vladovic, as well as their challengers, in a primary scheduled for the same day.

Members up for election in 2017 — Monica Garcia, Steve Zimmer and Monica Ratliff — would also win the longer terms.

The proposed measure might give any candidate pause, considering the additional time commitment for very small renumeration: For a board member who has no other full-time job, like McKenna, the annual salary is $45,637. For a member who also works elsewhere, like Galatzan, an assistant city attorney, the reward is $26,347 annually.

LAUSD board gets a dispiriting lesson on the MiSiS program

Matt Hill, Ron Chandler appear before the LA Unified board

Matt Hill, Ron Chandler appear before the LA Unified board

MiSiS mistakes were made, and LA Unified can expect to fork over millions more dollars to fix the software system’s myriad problems and get the program functioning properly.

In all, it was another demoralizing revelation about the MiSiS rollout debacle last night, and school board members’ frustrations quickly boiled over, leading to a verbal beat down of Chief Information Officer Ron Chandler, who served as the face of a new request for $3.6 million to buy 3,343 desktop computers for the nearly 800 schools with the most difficulty accessing the computer student data software because their devices are incompatible with the system.

“This should have been readily apparent all along and it should have been one of the considerations when rolling MiSiS out,” said Tamar Galatzan, whose every statement on the subject ended with a verbal exclamation mark.

An obvious question to ask before developing the system, she said, would have been, “What kind of devices are members going to use to enter this data? Beside the fact that the system doesn’t work, if you don’t even have a computer that’s new enough to be able to run it, it’s just ludicrous!,” she said.

When Chandler tried to defend his department’s actions, noting that the district failed to invest scarce dollars in acquiring new machines as a result of the recession, Steve Zimmer went on the attack.

“That was not a choice the board got to make,” he said pointing a finger at Chandler.

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An update: Deasy is still LAUSD superintendent, for now, anyway

Superintendent John Deasy

Superintendent John Deasy

John Deasy is still the LA Unified superintendent.

The district board met for more than 13 hours yesterday, including seven in closed session, where Deasy’s employment status was on the agenda. But the members emerged after a final 30 minutes in closed session at 11 o’clock last night with no announcements.

That means that the beleaguered boss is still at the helm of the nation’s second-largest school district even if his continued association with the district remains uncertain.

Little is really known about what’s going on. The board has authorized settlement negotiations for a buyout package, but there has been no public indication that lawyers are close or even if they are still talking.

Short of a buyout or an outright resignation, the board has several choices: It could vote to fire Deasy under several scenarios, which include instant dismissal, which would leave him in charge for nor more than 30 days; or judging his performance, scheduled for Oct. 21,  less than “satisfactory,” which would mean letting him remain through the end of his “at will” contract, June 2016.

The thing about a vote to fire him is tricky. The board needs four votes to do, and the votes don’t appear to be there yet. As much as several members clearly want Deasy out, the board operates with a majority rule on votes. It seems reasonable to assume that if a majority wanted him gone, he’d be gone by now.

Anyway, Deasy returns at the end of the week from South Korea to await his fate — not to mention updates on Jefferson High School, MiSiS problems, iPads, Title I battles and all the other issues plaguing LA Unified these days.


Community groups press school board again on Deasy evaluation

Community Groups LAUSD school boardCommunity groups supportive of Superintendent John Deasy have sent a second letter requesting a meeting with the LA Unified school board to discuss Deasy’s annual performance review.

In a letter sent yesterday to board President Richard Vladovic, the groups chided him for being unresponsive to their concerns about the lack of transparency in the evaluation process, which they conveyed in an earlier letter.

The letters were sent by Teach Plus, the Los Angeles Urban League, Educators 4 Excellence, United Way, Inner City Struggle and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“As Board President, we call on your leadership to help restore trust and confidence during this critical time,” the letter stated. “Decisions are being made largely behind closed doors, which will affect our schools, students and communities.”

The consortium of educators and community non-profits said it wants to meet with Vladovic sometime before the Oct. 14 board meeting to learn about the parameters for evaluating the superintendent. Further, the groups say they want those metrics to be made public.

“Superintendents and board members should be evaluated and judged, first and foremost, on measurable improvements in student outcomes – especially among low-income and students of color,” they said.

The LA Civic Alliance, which includes some of the city’s most influential philanthropists, real estate developers, bankers, lawyers and non-profit leaders, sent a similar letter to the board late last month, urging the seven members to put student interests first and keep Deasy where he is.

Deasy’s performance review is scheduled for Oct. 21, but there has been growing speculation that Deasy might leave his job before the meeting. In a closed session meeting last month board members floated the idea of offering Deasy an exit package, allowing both sides to part without a formal evaluation or vote to fire the superintendent.

The board is expected to continue the conversation during a closed session that precedes the Oct. 14 open meeting.

Previous Posts: Two groups urging LAUSD board to be objective, transparent

Board emerges from private meeting with no decision on Deasy

Superintendent John Deasy

Superintendent John Deasy

John Deasy is still the LA Unified superintendent.

After four hours behind closed doors last night, the district school board emerged with nothing to say. For Deasy, who did not attend the meeting, that was a plus, because it meant that the members might have talked about his performance, but they didn’t take a vote to fire him.

“To be continued,” board president Richard Vladovic said as he left district headquarters, without being clear whether he meant the board discussions or Deasy’s employment. “We haven’t decided anything.”

He also said the members agreed not to discuss their deliberations publicly. 

This was a meeting that was only recently added to the board schedule, honoring a request from Monica Ratliff who thought the members would be well-served by a preliminary discussion about what parameters to use when Deasy’s performance review comes up on Oct. 21. 

Some metrics appear automatic, like academic performance, graduation rates and attendance. His $330,000 annual contract, which has been altered over the years, stipulates that he must increase district revenues, though it does not specify by how much; he must boost enrollment by 5 percent each year and improve daily attendance by 1 percent district-wide and 3 percent at targeted schools.

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New Item on Board Agenda: ‘Separation’ from Deasy

LAUSDlogoIf John Deasy is, indeed, stepping down as superintendent of the LA Unified School District, the district appears to be moving to protect itself against a lawsuit.

When reached by phone, Deasy would only tell LA School Report that he has “not submitted a letter of resignation” and that he can’t talk before he meets with the board members tomorrow.

But a revised agenda (click here) for tomorrow’s board meeting was posted on the school board website over the weekend, with one addition to the closed-door discussion:

“Conference With Legal Counsel – Anticipated Litigation -
Significant Exposure To Litigation Pursuant To Gov. Code
Section 54956.9(d)(2) (1 Case) – Superintendent’s Separation.”

From the California Code, here’s what the section refers to:

“(2) A point has been reached where, in the opinion of the
legislative body of the local agency on the advice of its legal
counsel, based on existing facts and circumstances, there
is a significant exposure to litigation against the local agency.”

It’s unclear whether this language reflects due diligence by LA Unified’s legal team or new concern by the board that Deasy might have cause for legal action in response to rumors that board members may have played a role in his departure by leaking it to reporters. By terms of Deasy’s contract, he can be fired with 30 days notice.

LA Unified Board Finally Gives Deasy His Common Core Budget

IMG_2665The LAUSD School Board today finally approved a $113 million budget for transitioning to the Common Core curriculum. The 6-1 vote marked the end of a tumultuous and seemingly directionless process that led to the resignation of Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Jaime Aquino, an LA Times editorial calling the Board “dysfunctional,” and finally to Mayor Eric Garcetti wading in to Board politics for the first time.

Aquino was conspicuously absent from the proceedings. As Deputy Superintendent of Instruction, he has been a chief architect of the Common Core transition. He said on Friday that he would resign at the end of the year because of what he sees as school board meddling.

“Due to the announcement of my resignation, I have decided not to do any public engagement during my transition period,” Aquino told LA School Report in an email, when asked why he wasn’t at today’s board meeting. “My focus will be to work behind the scenes to ensure a smooth transition.”

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Analysis: Aquino’s Resignation Turns a Spotlight onto Deasy

Superintendent Deasy

Superintendent Deasy

Jaime Aquino‘s surprise announcement Friday that he’ll resign from Superintendent John Deasy‘s staff at the end of the year has sent shockwaves throughout LA Unified. Tomorrow, the district school board will take up the matter in closed session.

It’s unclear what they’ll discus – but his impending departure has exposed the district and its fractured board to a number of sudden and burning questions, not least of which may be:

Is Deasy Next?

On election night in March, just as it was becoming clear that Steve Zimmer was going to hold off a tough challenge by Kate Anderson, I got an email from a semi-prominent school reformer, offering three bold pronoucements: there would be a new board president (there is), there would be a new makeup of the board (there is) and Deasy would be on his way out. My correspondent told me: “Enough board interference makes his job really unfun and he leaves for greener pastures.”

They were unusual predictions, coming as they did months before Monica Ratliff pulled off a shock upset against Antonio Sanchez. Deasy’s staff is certainly frustrated by the new makeup of the board, as evidenced by Aquino’s departure. When asked last Friday if he was thinking about resigning, Deasy declined to comment – an ominous response coming from the man who told LAUSD administrators little more than a month ago, “I and this administration are not going anywhere.”

And that’s just the first question awaiting resolution:

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Deciphering the Kayser Letter (updated)

242764260-07182006Reporters were left scrambling late Friday afternoon when they received copies of a letter sent by School Board member Bennett Kayser to Superintendent John Deasy, asking Deasy to develop a “succession plan” for the superintendent and other senior staff.

The letter was littered with typos: The date at the top read “7/19/23.” The word “therefore” was spelled “therefor.” The word “prescribed” was spelled “proscribed,” which has an altogether different meaning. And the overall tone was strangely vague, leaving some with the impression that this was the first sign of a move to fire Deasy, although Kayser insisted otherwise.

“I simply want to know who the person is that is designated to step into the superintendent’s shoes when he is out of town, as he was this week, and who he has trained and expects to step in were the unexpected to happen; no more, no less,” Kayser said in a statement given to the LA Times

Indeed, Deasy and some members of his senior staff were in Washington, D.C. last week lobbying the federal government on behalf of nine California school districts for a “No Child Left Behind” waiver. A source close the the school board told LA School Report that Kayser and his chief of staff, Sarah Bradshaw, had tried to contact Deasy last week and could not reach him. The impetus of the letter, then, was what to do when Deasy was out of town, and who was steering the ship. But use of the phrase, “succession plan” — perhaps deliberately — confused matters, making it seem like a move to replace the embattled Superintendent.

“To some degree, Sarah Bradshaw is right,” said the source, pointing to a need to clarify who’s in charge when the superintendent is away. But, he added, “to some degree Sarah Bradshaw is a trouble maker. She’s going to antagonize Deasy, through Kayser, every chance she gets.”

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Zimmer to Celebrate Re-Election at Hollywood High*

photo-300x300After an against-all-odds re-election against challenger Kate Anderson in the District 4 primary earlier this year, School Board member Steve Zimmer is celebrating at Hollywood High School on Wednesday afternoon.

“This was a very significant re-election because of the national involvement,” said a spokesperson from Zimmer’s office. “We want to celebrate the teachers, students, parents and principals who were involved.”

The open event begins at 5:30 p.m. with a reception and 250 people are expected to attend.  Those who do may get a preview of Zimmer’s thinking and priorities going forward:

“I want to celebrate our accomplishments and the share my dreams and vision for our next four years fighting together for the education our kids deserve,” said Zimmer in a letter to supporters published in the Pacific Palisades Patch.

*Correction: Quote from Zimmer’s office was misattributed.

Previous Posts: Zimmer Reversal Likely Ends Garcia Presidency, Why Zimmer *Really* Switched Sides, Stuck in the Middle: Steve Zimmer, How Steve Zimmer *Really* Won

Marathon Board Meeting Signals Changes to Come

Screen shot 2013-06-19 at 11.50.39 AM

Superintendent John Deasy, Board President Monica Garcia, and departing Board member Nury Martinez

As anyone following us on Twitter knows all too well, Tuesday’s School Board meeting was a marathon session that lasted well into the night – much of it accompanied by the sound of protesters drumming on the street outside.

Among several key decisions the Board arrived at during the lengthy session were votes to award a $30 million contract to Apple, close a charter school that had dodged a district audit, and add some local regulations to the controversial parent trigger process (but not call for the law’s repeal).

The last meeting of the 2012-2013 school year, it also marked the final appearance of Nury Martinez, who left the Board after four years to run for City Council.

School Board President Monica Garcia presented Martinez with a giant bell, and Board held a bizarre mid-meeting reception in her honor that included a soft jazz band and chicken salad sandwiches.

By 9 pm, when the meeting finally ended, the Board had also approved its 2013-14 budget and begun a furious (and likely to be long-running) debate on how to spend future revenue increases.

If last month’s Board meeting represented a series of hard-fought victories for Superintendent John Deasy and his allies on the Board, last night’s meeting included a couple of losses, with a hint of more to come when the Board changes composition and leadership next month.

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People: Behind the Scenes with David Tokofsky

tokofskyJowled and affable, David Tokofsky is the kind of guy who can’t get in the door of Camilo’s California Bistro before being recognized and greeted by other patrons and distributing handshakes to the waitstaff.

Officially, the 53 year-old Eagle Rock resident is a part-time consultant for the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles (AALA), the school administrators’ union.

His Twitter bio lists him as a “recovering skool bored member” – a jokey reference to Tokofsky’s 12-year Board stint, which ended several years ago.

But that barely touches the surface of Tokofsky’s connections.

Tokofsky is perhaps the quintessential behind-the-scenes player in Los Angeles education circles, operating as something between a professional gadfly and éminence grise.

He’s an LAUSD graduate, UTLA classroom veteran, and a consultant with clients including charter schools and traditional education agencies.

And behind the scenes, he talks with everyone – Board members, union leaders, community heads, and journalists – about topics as varied as budgets, politics,  policy, and personnel.

“It’s hard to find any issue he doesn’t have his fingerprint on,” says Edgar Zazueta, Director of Government Relations with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

But as influential and ubiquitous as he’s said to be, Tokofsky’s hard to pin down on the issues and reluctant to talk about his behind-the-scenes accomplishments.

He knows and works with everyone, and he generally leans towards pro-union positions,  but his influence and allegiances remain something of an enigma — and that may be just the way Tokofsky wants it.

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School Board Gives Final Approval to 24th St. Plan

24th Street Elementary School parent speaks in favor of the new plan for the school

Tuesday’s Board meeting began with a moment of silence for the victims and survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing and the memory of teacher and activist Sal Castro.

During the following hours came several key decisions including the unanimous passage of Board member Tamar Galatzan’s resolution to streamline teacher misconduct investigations and the unanimous renewal for the beleaguered charter school Ivy Academia, whose founders were recently convicted of embezzling public funds.

Perhaps the highlight of the session was Board’s 5-1 vote to approve the much-discussed “parent trigger” plan for 24th St. Elementary School to be jointly managed by the district and Crown Preparatory Academy, a charter operator.

The one dissenting vote was cast by Board member Marguerite LaMotte, whose district encompasses the embattled school.

“This is not right,” she said. “The school wasn’t as bad as we tried to pretend it was.”

No Board member responded to LaMotte’s tirade. However, Board member Steve Zimmer said he was abstaining from the vote “in deference to Ms. LaMotte.”

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Who Will Be the Next School Board President?

LAUSD watchers began speculating about who the next School Board President might be almost as soon as the results of the March 5th LAUSD primary election were known.

The issue gained further immediacy when the School Board voted 4-3 this Tuesday to limit the term of President to two years. Unless the Board votes to waive the new rule, which it can do at any time, LAUSD will have a new President in July.

The two main contenders appear to be Dr. Richard Vladovic, who came within a single vote of becoming Board President last year, and newly re-elected Board member Steve Zimmer, who voted to keep president Monica Garcia last year but  voted for term limits earlier this week.

Superintendent John Deasy appears not to be the least bit concerned who might be named the next President. But none of the likely contenders will be as staunch a supporter as Garcia was.  A Zimmer or Vladovic Presidency might mean a slower-moving agenda, and Deasy is a notoriously impatient man.

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LA School Report Expands Campaign Coverage

A new section of LA School Report launches today, devoted to the three hotly contested Los Angeles School Board races. Election 2013, features in-depth information about each of the ten candidates, including questionnaires, biographies, endorsements, and the latest news on campaign contributions and spending.

The enhanced coverage provides readers with easy access to information as the March 5 primary, for District 2, 4 and 6, draws near.

Board, UTLA Have Different Plans to Reform “Teacher Jails”

Board Member Tamar Galatzan

Both LAUSD Board Member Tamar Galatzan and UTLA President Warren Fletcher have plans to push for reform of the district’s teacher misconduct investigation process, but their plans have different focuses and end goals, according to a LA Daily News report.

Board Member Galatzan is focusing on how long the teacher investigation process can take (an average of four months), with plans to create a faster, more fair way for the district to examine allegations made against teachers. UTLA’s Warren Fletcher isn’t as concerned about how long the process takes; instead, he plans to push for more consistent treatment of teachers housed in the various “teacher jail” locations and to ensure that elderly teachers aren’t being targeted because of their age (which the district denies is happening).

Previous posts: Board PreviewUTLA Rails Against “Teacher Jails”, Report: Teacher Dismissals Costly, Lengthy

Turnout Could Reach 30 Percent, Says Consultant

Conventional wisdom is that voter turnout is always relatively low for local elections—especially so for school board races. And this is often true.  In off-year election cycles, when the only offices up for vote are City Council or Board seats, turnout can be as low as 11 percent.  Relatively small numbers of voters can sway an election one way or the other.

But the upcoming March 2013 race—when Los Angeles voters will elect a new Mayor, City Council majority, and three Board of Education members—is poised to be more like 2005, when Antonio Villaraigosa faced 11 challengers and total turnout for the city was 29 percent, according to numbers from the Los Angeles City Clerk’s office.

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