By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
WEEKLY: You say that kindergarten is, to some extent, a union issue. Are there other things in the union contract you'd like to see changed?
CORTINES:The principals in this district will usually say, "Well, in the contract they gave away my rights to the teachers' union." And indeed, there was some of that. We're going to get part of that back in the negotiating process.
CORTINES:I think principals should be able to appoint their own department chairs. These people work directly for the principal. I also don't think teachers should be able to pick their own grade-level assignments based on seniority. I do believe that there should be protection against capricious administrators who do things to people without reason. I don't see it as black and white. I see it as a collaborative area. Remember, I've been a principal at every level. And I don't believe you can run a school well if you don't engage your teachers. Many of our people don't understand that leadership doesn't happen just because you're out front and you're a rah-rah person. Sometimes leadership is a kick in the butt, and usually it's walking side-by-side with arms linked.
WEEKLY: Can you talk about your reorganization of the district? You are moving to break up the district into smaller units. Will this just be the same people doing the same jobs but with new titles?
CORTINES:I look at the reorganization as focusing the district's mission, which has been lost for years. And that mission is to improve academic achievement for all children. Yes, we have children of poverty, children with disabilities, children of single parents. All of those are issues. But they do not mean that those kids can't learn.
All of the jobs, including the [regional] superintendents, will be advertised and go through a screening process. There will be no automatic incumbent appointments of anybody. Now, that has everybody upset. I signed a letter yesterday, to go out on March 15, that sends all of the administrators, both centrally and at the building level, notices that they may not have that job next year.
WEEKLY:How far down in the chain will that letter be sent?
CORTINES:I don't have that in my head yet, but it will be a ways down.
WEEKLY:It sounds like you're using a wrecking ball on the bureaucracy.
CORTINES:The answer is yes, and the answer is no. You cannot move this place educationally if you don't also try to carry out the demolition-ball process in a humane way. It's true that some people in the bureaucracy are the problem. Many of them are the problem. But many of them are not the problem intentionally. They've lost sight of the mission, because the board and the superintendent did not keep them focused. And another thing, and I'm going to say it the way I feel it -- ethnic politics took precedent over competence, and skill, and dealing with the needs of children.
WEEKLY:Let's talk about buildings. How did we get to the point where we don't have enough schools for our kids?
CORTINES:This is a long-term issue. Some board members and some community people would say, "Well, we never had any money to build buildings." That shouldn't have stopped them from laying out a plan to show the public that we had a burgeoning enrollment that needed to be dealt with. Whether we had the money or not. The district didn't gather the facts and figures to show, in an analytical way, where the bulge would come. The bulge that you now have in this district is at about the ninth-grade level. There are more students there.
WEEKLY:And after that, it tapers off because of the drop- out rate?
CORTINES:Yes, and that's also the reason that our test scores look better in high school. So many students drop out. I talk about that. Others in the district won't talk about it. They say to me, "Oh look, Mr. Cortines, look at how much better the high school test scores are." I say, "Come on, I've been around the block. It's the drop-out rate." We don't really track the drop-out rate. The majority of schools will tell you they don't have drop-outs. That is just b.s.
WEEKLY:And why are we still having trouble build- ing schools?
CORTINES:The district put good people into the facilities jobs, but they did not have the skills and the competency to do their jobs. Most of them should be in the classroom. We need the best real estate people in the city. And that's the reason you've seen, this week, that I've made some changes. I'm not going to get into an argument over whether the outside people [hired by the district as consultants on school building and renovation projects] have charged too much, but there has been an attitude of "How can we get money from the cash cow?" And I'm saying, "Hey, you work in a collaborative way with the staff, but you are not in the driver's seat." So we have this tension that is going on. They want to take the thing over.
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