The Los Angeles Unified School District is looking for a new leader. The question isn't who they want, it's who would actually want the job.
The interim superintendent, Ramon Cortines, signed a one-year contract extension last month. But last week, Cortines began crying during a public meeting and announced that he was leaving in six months.
“Cortines, a fitness fanatic also known for a punishing work ethic, has discussed feeling exhausted by the job, which has included managing several difficult situations,” wrote Howard Blume in the Los Angeles Times.
“Several difficult situations” = understatement of the year. The fact is, LAUSD superintendent just might be the hardest job in America. Here's why:
The School District
Welcome to LAUSD, the second-largest school district in the country. It has roughly 1,100 schools, 646,683 students and a budget of $7.8 billion. It sprawls over 710 square miles, from the Los Angeles–Ventura County line to the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, then southeast to Vernon and Maywood and Cudahy, and then all the way south to San Pedro.
It has its own 475-person sworn and non-sworn police force. It operates nearly as many buses as L.A. County Metro. Its cafeterias serve around half a million meals — each day.
It is, in short, a massive city not unlike L.A. itself, performing a multitude of services that go well beyond teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. Its schools house parent centers and act as hubs for social services.
Four out of five of its students are in poverty; one out of four them is learning to read and write English as a second language. Most of the latter speak Spanish as a first language, but thousands speak Armenian, Korean or one of 90 other languages (Tagalog! Pashto! Gujarati!). There are more English-language learners in Los Angeles than in any other school district in the United States.
Where It's Heading
The good news is that LAUSD is improving by any number of measurements, after four decades of decline from the 1960s through the 1990s. Test scores, truancy rates and graduation rates have all improved. All but one: enrollment.
And that is the bad news.
Enrollment has been dropping steadily since 2003, when the district had 750,000 students. Where are all these students going?
Many of them are going to charter schools. Many others have families that are moving out of LAUSD, either to neighboring school districts such as Culver City, Santa Monica or Long Beach, or out of L.A.
So LAUSD is leaking students, and it's a major problem, since school districts get money from the state government based on head counts.
Less students = less money. Less money = fewer employees, fewer services. That might make the school district look even worse to parents, who then move their kids out of the district, and so on.
It's a grim situation and no one seems to have any answers. The unions say hire more teachers. School reformers say make it easier to fire the bad teachers.
School board member George McKenna says LAUSD should run ads telling people how much better it's gotten. That's sure to work!
But the real thing that makes Superintendent the worst job in America is the politics.
The superintendent is hired by the seven-member, democratically elected school board, whose members can also fire the superintendent at any time. Half the board is up for re-election every two years, and voters are more than willing to vote them out and elect somebody new.
Which means that the superintendent's bosses are always being changed by the voters.
Take John Deasy, appointed as LAUSD superintendent in 2011 by a board that was loyal to then-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Two months later, Bennett Kayser was elected to the school board — and would prove to be Deasy's greatest critic. Two years later Monica Ratliff got elected, yet another new boss, and Deasy's days were numbered.
Even if you manage not to get fired by the ever-changing school board, you still have seven board members, with different communities and different interests, all of whom need to be satisfied.
Oh yeah, there's also 10 union bargaining units, including the perpetually disgruntled UTLA, the teachers union, which is led by its most radical faction because most teachers just can't be bothered with UTLA politics.
To Sum It Up
This job includes all the worst parts of running a bureaucracy, all the worst parts of running a democracy, and all the worst parts of running a business in decline.
There is a silver lining: It pays more than $300,000 a year. If you last that long.