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Life Without Ramon 

Massive changes await L.A. Unified

Wednesday, May 10 2000
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Amid the historic upheaval in L.A.’s schools, one thing is certain. Come June 30, Interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines — an architect of the dramatic changes — will voluntarily walk out the door, returning to his retirement after a six-month tour of crisis.

He’ll leave behind an avalanche of reforms in progress: the start-up of new reading and math programs, and the shutdown of social promotion and of traditional bilingual education. Cortines will be long gone by the time the school system either solves its classroom-space shortage or gets swamped by it. And it’s unlikely that he’ll see teachers sign their new contract — or go out on strike for the lack of it.

But Cortines’ carriage is not the only one poised near the exit ramp. Other possible short-timers include number-two man Howard Miller, as well as the district’s top legal adviser, the new head of school construction and the environmental-safety manager. And no one knows who will lead the instruction division, or the personnel department — or which educators will fill any of the top jobs in the 11 mini–school districts that will be carved out of L.A. Unified as of July 1.

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It’s something akin to beginning the Revolutionary War without a Continental Congress. Or starting the Manhattan Project without scientists.

Or curing polio before the vaccine arrives.

“I don’t know who the new leaders are going to be. I don’t know about their experience or background,” said school-board member Julie Korenstein. “For a new superintendent to have to walk into the middle of all of this leaves me very uncomfortable and makes me very nervous. It is a total question mark for me.”

Though leaks filtered through this week, the search for Cortines’ replacement has been confidential, even from the school board, while a screening committee and a professional search firm prepare a shortlist. Once that list is delivered officially, within the next two weeks, events will unfold quickly; a new superintendent could be chosen within days. The process contrasts sharply with the drawn-out, very public chain of events that culminated in 1997 with the selection of Ruben Zacarias, the previous “permanent” superintendent. But despite the subterranean process and the noise of other goings-on, school-board members are well aware that picking a new superintendent may be their most crucial decision to date.

The 67-year-old Cortines will leave L.A. Unified with a blueprint for reform and any number of supplicants asking him to extend a stay that paid dividends from the start. Initially, his appointment eased tensions in the Latino community after the school board roughly forced the retirement of Zacarias, a popular Latino administrator. It wasn’t just Cortines’ ethnicity that repaired fences, but his own respectful treatment of Zacarias, and his self-deprecating but entirely self-confident leadership style. Cortines also calmed the roiling waters internally, giving battling school-board members something they could agree on: namely, him.

“Ray Cortines is a visionary,” said board member Korenstein, who was a Zacarias supporter. “And when he puts his mind to something, you know it’s going to be accomplished.”

As an interim superintendent and an outsider, Cortines was free to wield an ax, and he has: decentralizing the bureaucracy and talking tough with employee unions. He also has required the entire senior staff to re-interview for jobs, even as a search firm casts about for possible replacements. In short, Cortines accepted the part of necessary villain, a hatchet guy to clear out the bodies so that a successor could assume the job without bloody hands. But instead, almost overnight, Cortines won people over; he found himself with a weekend pass to the honeymoon suite he was supposed to reserve for the next person.

“I feel good about many of the things I’ve been able to do,” Cortines said in an interview this week. But he added that his continued presence could undermine efforts to replace him. “Since when do you want an old has-been around quarterbacking? I will not interfere in any way with them getting the best superintendent.”

With the exception of former Colorado Governor and Democratic Party leader Roy Romer, the screening committee, until this week, kept applicants well closeted, even when several came to town for interviews. Another headliner is Henry Cisneros, the former San Antonio mayor and Clinton housing secretary whose rising political capital plummeted with a sex scandal and his admission that he lied about it. He currently works locally as a top executive with Univision, a Spanish-language television network. Cisneros’ name first surfaced in connection with the job of L.A. schools chief in a January Weekly story, which noted that Cisneros turned down an offer to join the superintendent search, a decision that left him prominently in the pool of candidates.

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