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Cortines' Many-Headed LAUSD Monster

When Ramon C. Cortines hit the ground as the Los Angeles Unified School District’s new superintendent in December, he hit it not only running but also firing at lots of moving targets. In such a target-rich environment as LAUSD, his style has proved entertaining, even while his marksmanship remains unclear.

Cortines sometimes arrives at work at 4:30 a.m., and is unafraid of making demands of administrators, with whom he is direct and even brusque. He dislikes attending school board meetings, and can be impatient.

“Maybe it’s the fact that he’s 76 years old,” his chief financial officer, Megan K. Reilly, jokes. “When he wants things, you know it.”

Cortines was the de facto superintendent even before David Brewer left. He had a stint as interim superintendent here in 2000, when he attempted to decentralize the huge LAUSD—peeling schools away from tight district control, adding a new layer of administration in the form of minidistricts, and also giving more purchasing power to individual schools.

Cortines is pursuing that path again, but critics are already saying he’s taking on many targets at once, too many of them too poorly thought-out.

Scott Folsom, vice president of Tenth District Parent Teacher Student Association, and a member of an oversight committee that watches over how LAUSD spends construction bonds, says, “He was very subscribed to the decentralization plan he wrote 10 years ago. ... My personal feeling is that in the kind of economic era we’re in, centralization makes more sense.”

Cortines wants to give principals more authority to budget for their own schools, which, Folsom warns, is likely to be very costly, particularly since LAUSD principals cannot be fired or held accountable nearly as easily as charter-school principals can — and few of the principals have any budgeting experience.

“LAUSD principals are not prepared for that job,” Folsom says. “They don’t have the wherewithal, the power, the training. ...Their idea of balancing a budget is checkbook balancing.”

Cortines faces even more skepticism from the United Teachers Los Angeles. Many teachers remember how “decentralization” made for conspicuous consumption by the minidistricts early in this decade. Now they fear the fiscal battles facing LAUSD will hurt teachers while Cortines fiddles with an old experiment.

It’s going to be a rocky time, many watching Cortines and the Antonio Villaraigosa–allied school board seem to agree. Teachers packed a board meeting on March 11, protesting Cortines’ mere sending out of notices informing them that at some point, some of them may be laid off. He had already let fly a proposal to send similar layoff notices to 2,300 teachers in early January, and got hammered by UTLA so badly that he pulled back.

The governor meanwhile has warned schools to prepare for dramatic fiscal uncertainties — fears that Cortines passed along to parents in a January letter sent home with all 680,000 students. In emotional language, he warned that children “may lose a favorite teacher” and cautioned parents in English and Spanish that “LAUSD must prepare for the worst.”

Beyond spooking parents, Cortines’ fiscal plan has created more confusion than anything else. His “Flexibility Plan” is filled with worst-case scenarios and calls for pie-in-the-sky revenue ideas that have little chance of being approved by voters in time to bail out the district.

One idea proposes to change the California Constitution to lower the bar for passing a special parcel tax — a property tax — from 66 percent of voters to a simple majority of 50 percent plus one.

Reilly, the chief financial officer, has joined the district’s longtime lobbyist, Santiago Jackson, in pushing the Flexibility Plan to stakeholder communities such as parents and teachers. And Cortines has been introducing the exhausting dog-and-pony show not only to his own school board bosses, but also to all kinds of quixotic audiences, including those who attended town hall–style gatherings at Dahlia Heights Elementary in Eagle Rock and Grant High in Valley Glen.

He even poured scarce district cash into a 27-minute video on “Flexibility,” explaining his budgetary woes via the Internet. In a new Internet video, Cortines sits with Reilly and rambles on, largely about himself for several minutes, while his respected CFO remains mute.

LAUSD says it’s $718 million short this year, with stimulus help coming — but its dimension uncertain.

The one flush area Cortines enjoys is the billions of dollars local taxpayers are pumping into school construction and rehabilitation. Five such bonds were approved by local voters over the past 11 years, and Angelenos will be repaying that money in some cases through the year 2044.

Some think tanks like the libertarian Reason Foundation and taxpayer groups have slammed the construction effort as a buy-now, pay-later building campaign. Other critics note that glitzy, often far too large and unwieldy, schools are rising in a district rapidly losing students to charter schools and middle-class flight — yet Cortines is talking about even more taxes.

The building campaign was sold to the not-yet-bond-fatigued public as desperately needed to address overcrowding. But in recent years, LAUSD has lost more than 50,000 students. Cortines insists the money is well-used, and Reilly denies that some new schools are superfluous, saying, “The District does complex demographic modeling five, 10 years out.”

Eugene Turner, a demographer in Cal State Northridge’s Geography Department, says that beyond the five-year projections, however, “we’re not sure how people are going to respond to the economic climate, and net domestic migration has been negative for L.A. County for at least the last 10 years.”

Cortines has yet to address the huge costs LAUSD incurs by having district leaders devote so many administrative and management resources to a massive, contractor-friendly building campaign — while other key school issues languish.

When the school board selected outsider Brewer as superintendent in late 2006, many observers believed the board was sending a message that it was not going to focus solely on bricks and mortar in a district riddled with student-achievement problems. But under Brewer, the school board spent much of its time on contracts, not student achievement. Brewer was also taken by surprise by administrative catastrophes, such as the notorious payroll-processing crisis he inherited — but then made worse — and a less-publicized IT meltdown.

“I’m actually surprised (Cortines) allowed the district to fire Brewer,” Folsom says. “Cortines seemed content to work with Brewer behind the scenes, and Brewer worked Sacramento well.”

Unlike with longtime Superintendent Roy Romer, who enjoyed political gravitas as a former governor of Colorado, few might be expected to blink when Cortines barks at town hall appearances or on Internet podcasts. And that could spell trouble for his complicated plan to “decentralize” LAUSD amidst a budget war.

His plan is not only experimental, it is the opposite of the path chosen in New York and Washington, D.C., where bad, big urban districts are using centralized powers to reverse long declines in student achievement. Nor does Cortines offer a way to give individual schools more power, as with charters, balanced with the crucial power that charters have to fire principals and teachers who can’t handle it.

Cortines may also face an unreceptive State Board of Education, where the governor recently appointed Rae Belisle, a strong advocate of using research-based classroom reforms already working in other states, and who is no fan of fads that often speed through troubled urban school districts.

The UTLA is also not playing along. It made Cortines cry uncle the first time he proposed to notify teachers of layoffs, and has issued an even more urgent call to arms in the wake of last week’s raucous board meeting. The union brazenly has even asked for raises.

CFO Reilly sees Cortines’ frenetic pace of announcements and public appeals as positive, saying, “I think that the energy of Cortines does ignite a fire around here.”

The question is whether Cortines, the superintendent in a hurry, will continue issuing dire predictions while bending the moment to suit his decade-old decentralization agenda, or go with more basic goals in his second hundred days in the job.