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L.A. schools chief urges administrators to break bureaucratic rules to help kids

L.A. schools chief urges administrators to break bureaucratic rules to help kids
L.A. Unified Supt. Austin Beutner uses his hands to allude to the mountain of paperwork faced by principals and pledges to cut it in half. In turn, he said, he wants them to break rules to help students. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

It had to be a culture shock for L.A. school administrators Thursday when their new boss urged them to be “rule breakers.”

The 1,500 principals and other managers who came out to hear new Supt. Austin Beutner give the annual State of the District speech applauded on cue. They rose as instructed for the Pledge of Allegiance. And on this morning, they waited 20 minutes in baking, unshaded heat, fanning themselves virtually without complaint, for the auditorium doors at Hollywood High School to be unlocked.

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Then Beutner told them to stop looking to superiors for orders.

“The answers are in your classrooms,” Beutner told them. “They’re in your schools.”

He asked administrators to wake up every day “with a sense of urgency” and to focus “on getting results for kids … not bureaucracy and compliance.”

“I’m challenging you to lead,” he said. “I never met a great leader who asked for permission to lead.”

Beutner, who took charge of the Los Angeles Unified School District in May, also pledged to cut administrators’ red tape. The nation’s second-largest school system needs to enter an era of “simplicity and focus,” he said, instead of chasing “quick fixes and new programs.”

The goal will be to “make each school a place of great teaching and learning,” which is not the case currently, he said.

Beutner, a wealthy businessman-turned-philanthropist and civic leader, has no experience managing a school system and faces a host of challenges. These include labor unrest and a poor financial forecast.

So far, he has offered no specific plan either to cut or enlarge the budget, and he did not do so Thursday. He also offered no details on addressing lagging student achievement except to say it would be acceptable no longer: Too many English students are not becoming fluent in English; too many black students have fallen behind in academic achievement and lack fair access to programs for the gifted; too many disabled students have no chance to reach their academic potential, he said.

Sometimes these annual speeches are used to unveil plans or launch major initiatives, but not always.

Beutner did promise to put a stronger focus on improving student attendance. He promised a better distribution of resources to get more students to school more often. And he unveiled a campaign in which sports celebrities will record motivational phone messages about attending class to be delivered to L.A. Unified households.

Administrators got to hear the first celebrity motivator — Clippers coach Doc Rivers — live and in person.

“Don’t run away from hard,” Rivers said. “If it’s something worth attaining, it would be hard.”

“This is the ultimate ‘being sent to the principal’s office,’ ” Rivers joked about his appearance. “You know I’ve been there.”

Beutner’s remarks, which followed those of Rivers, were low-key but resolute.

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His pledge to cut in half the mountain of communications and directives sent to principals went over well. The applause for breaking the rules seemed perhaps a little cautious and nervous.

“Administrators are going to welcome the part about being bold, courageous, a rule breaker — but for that to happen it has to permeate at every level,” said Juan Flecha, president of the administrators union, “because the culture and climate of the district has been to follow the rules.”

Paul Robak, who represents a district-organized parent advisory group, said he is “cautiously optimistic.”

“This was not the usual backslapping love fest,” Robak said of Beutner’s approach. “He said some things that made some people sit up and take notice.”

Board members George McKenna and Richard Vladovic praised the superintendent’s focus on struggling schools.

“He’s right about the perennially underachieving schools,” Vladovic said. “I happen to believe we can turn it around if we all accept the challenge.”

5:50 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details from the event and comments from those who were present.

This article was originally published at 12:20 p.m.

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