Life Without Ramon

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.

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.


Of course, the usual suspects would be superintendents from other school districts and top deputies from L.A. Unified itself. Outside educators whose names surfaced in rumors included Jim Sweeney, the Sacramento schools chief who’s overseen a widely lauded back-to-basics program that used the same Open Court reading system recently adopted by L.A. Unified.

Another name mentioned was Joseph Olchefske, who took charge of Seattle’s schools after the death of General John Stanford.

Closer to home are Carl Cohn, the steady, low-key superintendent of Long Beach Unified, and Al Mijares of Santa Ana Unified, Orange County’s largest school system.

And in that other Orange County, in Florida, is Superintendent Dennis Smith, who once headed Irvine’s school district. Smith has received accolades for decentralizing Orlando’s school system, giving campuses greater autonomy under regional superintendents, a motif directly in keeping with the Cortines plan.

A more unusual possibility is Adam Urbanski, the head of the teachers union in Rochester, New York. Urbanski, a frequent visitor to Los Angeles, has embraced accountability measures that other union leaders opposed. He’s well-regarded among both local educators and civic power brokers.

From the college ranks, there was Piedad Robertson, a former secretary of education in Massachusetts and the current president of Santa Monica College, the first woman and the first Latina to head that school.

Two notable Latino contenders, George Garcia of Tucson and Fresno’s Carlos Garcia, have just taken jobs with other school systems, underscoring the heated competition. And an L.A. invitation to short list favorite Rod Paige prompted a countermove by Houston school-board members, who raised Paige’s salary 26 percent last week to $275,000.

Besides Romer and Cisneros, the non-educators under consideration were thought to include four-star general and Rhodes scholar Wes Clark, who led the NATO campaign against Serbia and was described by writer Gabriel García Márquez as “a soldier who dreams of being a man of letters.”

Another possibility was George Munoz, a onetime president of the Chicago Board of Education who served Clinton as both a Treasury official and as the well-regarded head of the Overseas Private Investment Corp., a federal agency that sells American companies insurance against political risks overseas.

A local favorite is Liam McGee, who looks increasingly like the Bill Siart of the year 2000. In 1997, Siart, a civic-minded banking executive eager to dive into education reform, finished as runner-up to Zacarias.

McGee, also a career banker, leads the Southern California operation for Bank of America. He achieved some notoriety in 1993 when the San Francisco Chronicle “credited” him with a plan to cut overhead by reducing the working hours and benefits of employees. More recently, he was one of the bank officials lucky enough to be quoted defending the ATM fees charged to noncustomers.

On the civic side, McGee has long served on a variety of public-interest boards. And he presumably played a part in directing his bank’s charitable contributions toward literacy efforts. Both he and Cisneros volunteered late last year for a committee set up to restructure the school district’s financial operations.

None of the candidates, other than Romer, has campaigned for the job, and strikingly, not a single touted contender comes from the ranks of current district administrators, the same crowd that used to have a near lock on the top spot.

In an earlier era, the presumed successors would be headlined by Deputy Superintendent Ron Prescott, who directs the district’s lobbying operation, and Deputy Superintendent Lilliam Castillo, who oversees instructional services. Castillo was the Latino heir apparent to the Zacarias legacy, whereas Prescott is the consummate smooth insider, who would have given African-Americans their “turn” at the top spot. These days, Castillo is in jeopardy of losing her current job, and Prescott is contemplating retirement.

The only inside candidate with even an outside chance is Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller, who is not really an insider at all, but a real estate attorney who swooped in last fall to organize business operations, and later helped the school-board majority bump Zacarias to the sidelines. And while outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan is apparently not a candidate, a close mayoral confidant is playing an important role in the selection process. Business magnate and philanthropist Eli Broad, who is even wealthier than Riordan, barely made it onto the school-board-nominated screening committee. But once installed, district sources report, he took the responsibility to heart, jetting across the country and all over town soliciting applicants.

Broad’s office declined to comment on these accounts, but school-board member Victoria Castro said that she was recently approached at a Washington education conference by officials who’d talked to Broad. She declined to name the officials, but expressed discomfort with Broad’s recruiting — because a search firm had been hired for that purpose and because Broad also would have the task of evaluating the recruits. “If he had not been part of the screening committee,” said Castro, “I would have no problem with him traveling and encouraging people to apply.”


Broad’s involvement with education is beginning to reach Mayor Riordan’s level. Broad contributed $250,000 to Riordan’s hand-picked candidates in last year’s school-board elections, the most expensive in the nation’s history. And the Broad family has pledged $100 million to the recently formed Broad Foundation, which supports education-reform efforts. The foundation is considering Cortines’ request to fund management training for the 11 minidistrict superintendents. Ultimately, it’s hard to imagine that the next schools chief could get the job without a thumbs up from either Broad or Riordan, through their ability to influence some members of either the screening committee or of the school board. Cortines himself, a former New York City and Pasadena superintendent, was well-known and well-regarded in Riordan’s circle when he was asked to take the helm of L.A.’s schools.

However it falls out, the selection process will look remarkably different from the last time around. Zacarias, a career LAUSD insider, had to survive public forums that played out much like this year’s presidential primaries, in which favorites Gore and Bush stood before constituents, took on all comers, ran a campaign and risked a fall.

“Last time, there was perhaps an excess of activity,” said Maria Casillas, president of the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, a school-support organization. “We’ve gone from parading candidates publicly and having them face an audience of friendly and hostile questions to nothing.” She added, “It’s probably by design so that the process doesn’t become a popularity contest or a contest of wills between community groups.” During the previous selection process, bands of Zacaristas appeared at every public forum and made it clear that they would be satisfied with no one other than Zacarias, the Latino native son.

The forums drove Zacarias to make commitments by which he could later be measured, said Mike Roos, former head of the LEARN school-reform organization. “And arguably, that’s why his tenure didn’t last too long,” Roos said, “because he didn’t have the wiggle room that previous occupants of the office had enjoyed.”

Roos added, however, that he was not offended by the secretive screening process, because the old hierarchy of succession has been dismantled by Cortines and the new school board. “It had been a passing on of the baton that is reminiscent of how the Mormon Church picks its leader or how a utility company picks its chair,” he said. “If you survived long enough, you eventually got to the top.”

The new person doesn’t have to be another Ray Cortines; in fact, the new person won’t get the chance. Board members say they are committed to Cortines’ district reorganization and his reading reforms (which were inaugurated under Zacarias). Cortines also plans to settle on a math program before leaving town.

“We can’t have someone coming in with a reinvention of the school district,” said school-board member Valerie Fields. “We will have to say, ‘Are you comfortable with what we have set in place?’ We can’t put the district in turmoil again.”

If a new superintendent isn’t named well before July 1, Cortines said he’s prepared to appoint the 11 minidistrict superintendents and also fill the other top administrative posts. He has his work cut out for him. Indeed, the mainstays of the team bargaining with teachers — Cortines, Miller and district legal adviser Richard Sheehan — are all contracted only through June 30. And not one of them has served even a year with the school system — much the same as other key senior managers and consultants. (Sheehan, by the way, served for some time as Eli Broad’s attorney.)

Such newness and instability is both crippling and distracting. “Too many midlevel leaders are looking over their shoulders, typing up résumés, figuring out which job to apply for, at a time when they need 100 percent focus,” said Mark Slavkin, a former school-board member.

But the turnover could be a boon for a new superintendent in one important respect, noted Slavkin. “The new person must be given real latitude to assemble a team. That has been a chronic failing in the past, when board members made political deals among themselves. I don’t think any of the superintendents was ever given free rein to build the team he wanted.” It would be a mistake to tell the new superintendent that “we’ve already decided who will be running the district.”

On the other hand, said board member Fields, “You can’t have everybody walk out July 1. That would be a disaster.” A Cortines-assembled transition team is almost a necessity, Fields noted, adding, “I have to admit that I put my arm around his shoulders and said, ‘How about you, my dear?’ I’m sure he will not desert us.”


Said Cortines: “Do they kid me about staying on? They kid me all the time.”

Cortines, obviously, will be packing his bags with the romance of his good start still fresh in the air. With all the work ahead, however, his successor had better come prepared with a good reference for a domestic-conflict hot line.


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