How Ramon Cortines set the standard for the next L.A. schools chief

On his first day back as the head of the nation's second-largest school system, Ramon C. Cortines paid an unlikely visit to the headquarters of United Teachers Los Angeles. The union had a tense relationship with former Supt. John Deasy, and was pushing toward a possible strike over stalled contract talks.

Cortines met union officials on their turf: He wanted to show that there would be no barriers between him and teachers.

With that step, Cortines set himself apart from his predecessor. It was one of many moves that Cortines made during his 14 months at the helm of the L.A. Unified School District that set the standard for the next superintendent.

The Board of Education is now seeking a leader who will follow his model.

Cortines, 83, came out of retirement in October 2014 to steady the school system after Deasy's tumultuous tenure. He undid some of Deasy's most controversial policies, including canceling a $1.3-billion technology plan that originally had sought to provide every student with an iPad. He also spent millions to repair a malfunctioning online records system that created errors in transcripts and left many high school students stuck in auditoriums without classes or placed them in the wrong ones. And he won labor peace with a double-digit pay raise and by giving the union some say in teacher discipline practices.

Though some civic leaders still favor someone with Deasy's aggressive agenda for change, district officials described Cortines' leadership as both calming and productive, particularly on matters that affected students.

"This has nothing to do with being aggressive, but with whether the next superintendent pursues an agenda unilaterally," said school board President Steve Zimmer. "The next superintendent will need to collaborate with our community, our parents, our Board of Education and our labor partners."

None of the candidates is strongly associated with a particular ideological agenda for reshaping education. Some board members don't want that sort of leader; others simply realize that they won't get the full board to agree on a reform agenda to follow.

No finalists' names have been released, but some candidates who have been under serious consideration include San Francisco Supt. Richard Carranza and Miami Supt. Alberto Carvalho. Both have worked well with their local school boards. St. Louis Supt. Kelvin Adams has worked collaboratively with unions and also a local charter school group.

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In L.A. Unified, Chief Deputy Supt. Michelle King worked directly for Cortines and has decades of experience within the district, replicating Cortines' familiarity with the system. And Fremont Unified Supt. Jim Morris preceded King in a similar post under Cortines and other L.A. district leaders before he left.

King is serving as acting superintendent until a choice is made. The board will meet behind closed doors Tuesday to continue its deliberations.

Board members, some of whom had been marginalized under Deasy, are seeking a more inclusive leader. Cortines proved that path was effective, they said.

In addition, Cortines' strategy was to focus on making progress school by school and on selecting and nurturing leaders who would act independently.

It was a style that differed sharply from that of Deasy, who sought sweeping changes to district policies and even education law, including an effort to limit teacher job protections through litigation. Deasy successfully cultivated a leading national position among like-minded reformers.

"Reform is not rhetoric," Cortines said in a recent interview. "And it is not passion. It is getting dirt under your fingernails. Let me tell you, this district has to be managed. It is a $12-billion business."

Among Cortines' first acts was restoring a relationship with the teachers union. He succeeded in negotiating a new contract that called for a 10% raise over two years. The union had fought with Deasy over the size of the raise and other issues.

Cortines "said he understood that teachers were frustrated, that morale was low," said union President Alex Caputo-Pearl. "And he knew that anger and frustration was either going to come out in a strike or in an agreement that made substantial progress in areas that people were concerned about."

And the veteran administrator acknowledged that efforts to end suspensions — a Deasy centerpiece — had caused serious problems at some campuses, especially because schools lacked the resources needed to make the new approach effective.

It helped that those he worked with, inside and outside the system, believed that Cortines did not have a personal agenda. He balanced the budget, for example, by resisting proposals to increase spending for such programs as adult education, even while acknowledging their value. He settled a dispute over limited space at Westside campuses among those supporting charter schools, adult education and special academic programs.

"Ray is a superior manager," said board member Monica Ratliff. "He's decisive. He's transparent. He's communicative. He treated every member of our community with respect. It was like a breath of fresh air."

But the board needs to look beyond searching for a duplicate of Cortines, some members said.

Board member Ref Rodriguez praised Cortines, but said that he may care too much about L.A. Unified as an institution.

"I came to realize how devoted to the district he is, how much he believes in and is protective of it," Rodriguez said. "But that is a double-edged sword. Personally, I feel we have to reimagine what our school systems look like."

Cortines had previously led L.A. Unified twice — for six months in 2000 and for 2 1/2 years starting in 2008, until Deasy took over in April 2011. He also headed school districts in Pasadena (twice), San Jose, San Francisco and New York. And he served as a senior official in the federal education department and as a Los Angeles deputy mayor.

Cortines never expected to have a third shot at running L.A. Unified. When he stepped aside in 2011, it was after relations had frayed with Deasy, who was his deputy and heir apparent. Influential leaders in the civic and philanthropic community, including then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, regarded Cortines as too traditional, unwilling to push as fast as they wanted for changes in the school system.

They couldn't wait for Deasy to take over, and Cortines got the message.

Then, in 2012, a year after his retirement, the school district disclosed a sexual harassment allegation against Cortines from 2010. L.A. Unified agreed to a $275,000 settlement with the district's real estate manager, Scot Graham, but the pact later fell apart. A judge dismissed Graham's subsequent lawsuit, saying he had not filed it in time. Cortines acknowledged a one-time sexual liaison but said the encounter was consensual.

Some observers say the time is right for Cortines' departure. They say the district has fallen into a holding pattern in such crucial areas as instruction. Cortines only recently hired a deputy superintendent to oversee academics, and his plan to give schools more control over budgets and teaching methods may or may not find favor with the next leader.

"Cortines appears to have been a steadying force, that is probably the biggest contribution," said attorney George Kieffer, a University of California regent and chairman of the Los Angeles Civic Alliance, which had supported Deasy. "But when you are a leader who has a set term, where you're going to be leaving, there are going to be all sorts of limitations on what you can do, whether it's reforming or setting an agenda for the long term."

Board members said they have no regrets over bringing back Cortines, calling him an experienced, selfless — and surprisingly tireless — unifying force.

Now they are looking ahead.

"I think Ray laid the groundwork," said board member Richard Vladovic. "There's a lot of work to be done and a lot of uncertainty … but I would like to see someone come in who is collaborative, transparent and willing to listen to others without losing a sense of direction."

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 04, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Setting the tone - L.A. Unified says Cortines is a model for its next leader" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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