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The Hot Seat 

Ramon Cortines has Promised to Reinvent the City's Schools. But Can He Deliver?

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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?

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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.

WEEKLY: Have there been other problems with getting schools built?

CORTINES: I feel like the school district has thumbed its nose at all sorts of applications it should be making. The district has been an arrogant collaborator in looking at communities. I believe a school district should be looking at the quality of life in a community. A school district should be looking at how the building can be used beyond the teaching of children. When I went to San Francisco [as superintendent of schools], we got the first bond issue in nine years passed. It passed because of the senior citizens. I went to them and helped them understand how new facilities would be of value to them, made clear that they could also use the facilities in various ways. So I'm going to move L.A. Unified to be more collaborative. In the next three months, I think you will see some signs of that process. I think city politicians will believe that the school district is in a more collaborative kind of mode. The system has always looked just at building large high ã schools, and I don't think there is the land in L.A. to build large high schools any more. Belmont is the focus now, but the issue of space is all over the system. We cannot convert all of the middle schools to high schools and all of the elementary to middle schools and build primary centers. We cannot afford to. There are some where it is natural, and it could be done. But I think King-Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science and Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School are perfect examples of how you can provide the best kind of facility. They're high-tech on smaller pieces of land. I think we should be doing more of those. For example, at Belmont I'd like to take the academies out of the main school and place them in spaces that are small.

WEEKLY: Given the space difficulties in the district, why wouldn't you let the state's toxic agency complete its review of the Belmont site, and come up with a detailed breakdown of the advantages and drawbacks of finishing that project?

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