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Ruben Could Be Right

Carrots, Jessica Boone; Ruben & Ramon, APWide World; Hayden, Debra Dipaolo

For exactly one day, the school-reform plan of L.A. schools Superintendent Ruben Zacarias was the hottest story in town, drawing a horde of TV cameras and an above-the-fold headline in the L.A. Times.

This was the reform vision of the city�s top educator, a man with more than 30 years in the school system. And beyond that, the plan also was a bold stroke aimed at tipping the scales in Zacarias� dramatic struggles with a hostile school-board majority.

The plan calls for dividing L.A. Unified into 12 administrative regions, touts the efficiencies of private-sector practices, and makes it clear that Zacarias -- as the superintendent -- would call the shots in managing the nation�s second largest school district.

Yet after its high-intensity debut, the Zacarias plan became a seeming mirage, vanishing as rapidly as the career of the man who proposed it. And though it was the desperate measure of a man trying to hang on to his job, the plan also was an inside perspective on how to turn the district around, from someone in a good position to know what he�s talking about.

Reorganization was never simply a parlor trick that a self-interested Zacarias pulled from his sleeve. He and many others inside and outside of district headquarters talk about reorganization as if it were a magic elixir. It�s the very reason why Howard Miller, a real estate attorney, was drafted into upper management as chief operating officer. And it�s also a major task for Ramon C. Cortines, named last week to advise Zacarias, and, as of January 16, to replace him on an interim basis. Cortines, in an interview, immediately stated that a revamped, streamlined bureaucracy is a top priority, and perhaps the only hope.

As board member Caprice Young put it: �We expect in the coming weeks to see one auditor�s report after another identifying major problems in every operating division of the district. We face a massive challenge to build facilities, because schools are overcrowded. Existing schools are filled with asbestos; two high schools were closed down today. School-bond construction projects are behind schedule. We have consistent problems with the budget and the budget process. And at the same time we are starting a new districtwide reading program and ending social promotion.�

Challenging times indeed for a school system that has trouble cleaning bathrooms and getting textbooks into the hands of students. Zacarias -- after spending a career as a cog in this flailing bureaucracy -- wanted to take part in a cure, and was certain he had something valuable to say on the matter. It was hard, however, to find anyone taking him seriously with his district career on life support.

�There has never been a discussion about Ruben�s plan at any time after he introduced it,� said board member Julie Korenstein, a Zacarias supporter. �His authority had already been taken away. The board majority was clearly not very interested in hearing from someone who was not going to be there.�

In the end, the Zacarias plan never got beyond a thin set of 31 slides for his PowerPoint presentation to the press. But it still shows the serious thinking of a district insider who wanted so badly to steer the district through a turbulent reform process, and its fate speaks volumes about the struggle between Zacarias and the board.

First word of a Zacarias reform plan filtered into the media on Monday, October 18, less than a week after board members, by the narrowest of margins, stripped Zacarias of authority by ordering him to cease direct supervision of all senior administrators. Instead, Zacarias would deal only with real estate attorney Howard Miller, who, in turn, would run day-to-day operations. Board members insisted that the change was needed to right a listing bureaucracy, and that Zacarias, freed of this burden, could achieve his true calling as a �visionary� on matters related to instruction.

Zacarias, though caught by surprise, immediately had enough vision to recognize a palace coup in progress. Backed by a broad, mostly Latino coalition of politicians and activists, he resisted the board�s move, questioning its legality. But he knew too that, sooner or later, if four of the seven board members wanted him out, he would be gone. He portrayed his reform scheme as a curative balm to the conflict: �In an effort to heal the wounds of the past, I plan to announce my plan for reorganization next week after presenting it to the school board, which -- despite my differences -- should be involved in the reorganization process.�

What this plan would contain was a genuine mystery to everyone except Zacarias. And part of that was intentional, explained his lawyer Joseph F. Coyne Jr., who worked closely with Zacarias in recent weeks. �We tried to keep a lot of people out of it,� said Coyne. �We didn�t want to create factions, and we wanted people to be able to say legitimately they were on the sidelines.� Because the board had directed everyone to report to Miller, working closely with Zacarias could be interpreted as defiance, and Zacarias had no desire to bring grief to people loyally assisting him.

As it was, the chaos at the top had engendered a muddy chain of command. Zacarias, for example, told his administrators that they should continue to report to him. At the same time, he instructed staff to give Howard Miller -- who was running the same district out of a different office -- everything he needed and asked for.

But was Zacarias really working alone, without any sort of staff assistance, in re-imagining a $7 billion institution, like a latter-day Abe Lincoln sketching out the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope with a quill pen?

Not exactly, answered Coyne. �A number of people participated without knowing it. Dr. Zacarias would reach out to people in the organization and outside of it. And they might not even know that, through this conversation, they were involved in what turned out to be the restructuring plan.�

Board members certainly had no advance briefing. Zacarias arrived to explain the plan to them just before the October 26 public unveiling at a news conference. But he was waved out of the room by a board attorney who insisted that the item had not been posted in advance, and thus could not be discussed.

For his part, Zacarias said he developed the plan with the help of senior aides -- whom he did not specify -- even though they might not have fully comprehended the thrust of the conversation. Some top advisers, including Deputy Superintendent Lilliam Castillo, the head of instruction, did not return several phone calls for this story. But those who did maintained they had no part in the Zacarias plan.

As a culminating manifesto, the Zacarias plan is a strikingly thin document. Though 31 �pages� long in printed form, it consists mostly of organizational charts and bullet points in oversize type that run about 30 words to a page. Its central feature is to divide the district into 12 or so geographic zones. Each would be run by a regional administration. This was the very setup in which Zacarias came of age as a rising administrator; the school system only recently -- under predecessor Sidney A. Thompson -- moved to a different design, featuring administrative �clusters� for one or two high schools and their feeder elementary and middle schools. The clusters, said Zacarias in an interview, �clearly diffused people all over the place without the necessary resources.� Consolidated regional offices could offer more. �You do have to have someone between the district and the schools. I�m not talking about huge bureaucracy; I�m talking about services. Not only that, but with the clusters, parents didn�t have a sense of access to someone with authority.�

Deputy Superintendent Ron Prescott had no role in the plan, but he liked the retro framework. �We got rid of regions because the unions leaned on us about administrative costs,� he said. �But the schools didn�t stop having problems; it�s just that there was nobody out there to deal with them.�

Zacarias also borrowed liberally from his experience in other ways. The LEARN school-reform effort, for example, sought to put schools in control of their own budgets. Zacarias wanted to try this at the proposed regional offices. And he wanted to include public forums in the process of selecting regional superintendents -- just as he had to submit to forums when he sought the district�s top job.

Without spelling out details, the plan also embodies an administrator�s wish list on teachers, indicating that in exchange for higher pay, teachers must submit to �more efficient work rules,� �pay for performance� and �benchmarking.� In other words, it should be easier to get rid of unwanted tenured teachers who aren�t cutting it.

And Zacarias was clearly paying attention when Mayor Richard Riordan and UCLA management guru Bill Ouchi arranged for him and senior staff to get real-world-style, corporate management training two years ago from McKinsey and Co. The Zacarias plan floats the concept of �outsourcing� noneducation functions -- like payroll, for example -- that could be handled more cheaply and efficiently by the private sector. Other business-style reforms include a computer analysis that would accurately assess teacher performance -- something the district is nowhere near achieving technically. In addition, wrote Zacarias, every �functional group� involved in student instruction �must make specific written recommendations for improving student standardized test scores at least 5 percent per year for five years.�

Notably, the org chart pushes Miller back to his original role, as head of facilities -- while also allowing Miller to be a reorganizational officer. In all, the plan includes eight pages of org charts -- a bureaucratic view of the world from a careerlong bureaucrat. That�s a sharp contrast to the pragmatic pitch put forward by Ramon Cortines, the blunt, 67-year-old school administrator who will take over as interim superintendent in January. His top two stated priorities? Books and clean bathrooms.

Critics have long wondered what it would take for district officials to decide that giving high school students enough textbooks and clean bathrooms is a) possible and b) mandatory. Cortines would be a hero if he gets that far during his brief watch, which he expects to last less than a year.

Former district spokesman Brad Sales, a Zacarias confidant and loyalist, was not impressed: �Yeah, there are bathrooms that need to be cleaned up and textbooks that may not have gotten to every kid -- though we were told otherwise. But we felt we were making needed change. And though bathrooms and books are important, Cortines has got to do more than clean bathrooms and get textbooks out there. That was frankly a shallow statement of priorities.�

Cortines more or less concurred. �I do agree that�s just the surface,� he said. �But I�m trying to send a message. There are some basic, symbolic things that we need to do. To people in the schools, books and bathrooms are damn important.� But they�re just a starting point. �Before I leave here, I will leave the school board a functional reorganization plan based on looking at things and talking to various people and my own past experience on how you make a system run smoother with fewer people at the central office.�

Cortines and school-board members well understand that if they don�t get it right, outside forces will push for a different sort of restructuring: the permanent breakup of the massive school system.

So how about the Zacarias plan as a starting blueprint?

�I�ve never seen it,� said Cortines, adding that for now, �I�m an adviser to Superintendent Zacarias. That�s between him and the board.�

At the press conference after the school board voted to buy out his contract, Zacarias seemed surprised when a reporter brought up the subject. And attorney Coyne was touched that someone would even inquire: �To be honest, it�s nice to be asked about it. No one has shown much interest.�