On his first day, Cortines feels a 'sense of urgency' at L.A. Unified

Ramon C. Cortines returns to L.A. Unified to replace schools chief John Deasy after his resignation

Ramon C. Cortines' first day in his latest tour at the helm of Los Angeles Unified started in a familiar fashion: early, with his first meeting at 7 a.m.

That was practically indolent for Cortines, who is known to schedule meetings for 6 a.m. But on this Monday at least, the 82-year-old administrator-in-chief eased back from retirement.

The Board of Education turned to Cortines as the logical stopgap to replace John Deasy, who resigned last week under pressure. Cortines had led the school systems in New York City, San Francisco, San Jose and Pasadena. And in L.A. Unified, he previously served as interim superintendent in 2000, then led the district again from late 2008 through April 2011, when Deasy took over.

Now Cortines is back through June, at a prorated annual salary of $300,000, which is $50,000 less than his predecessor received. Cortines also elected to move into a smaller office and convert Deasy's space into a conference room.

Either the board or Cortines can terminate the agreement with 30 days' notice. Officials have yet to work out details on a search for a permanent replacement.

(The district on Monday also updated details of Deasy's separation agreement. He'll receive about $61,000 for unused vacation days in addition to about $70,000 in severance to be available as needed through year's end.)

Neither Cortines' schedule nor his history suggests that he'll be a caretaker. During a six-month stint in 2000, he reorganized the school system, hired an executive team and made major decisions about instruction and building projects.

Expect another busy period, he said.

"There's a sense of urgency," said Cortines at the end of the day. "The last three and a half years there's been progress in the district, but we have some major challenges that together we have to address."

On Monday, within a span of eight hours, his meetings covered a sweep of issues that have dominated public attention, including a crisis involving a student records system and labor negotiations with the teachers union, which has talked of a possible strike.

Board member George McKenna said he sensed relief at district headquarters on Beaudry Avenue with the arrival of Cortines.

"People are not celebrating anyone's demise," McKenna said, referring to Deasy. "They're celebrating the return of Ray. He is welcomed. He is appreciated. He is respected."

Poor relations with board members were a major factor in Deasy's downfall, and Cortines squeezed in meetings with two board members who had criticized Deasy: Steve Zimmer and Bennett Kayser.

The latter had met Cortines once before, as a teacher who was protesting the closing of a school.

"He remembered," Kayser said.

At 9 a.m. Monday, Cortines met with Vivian Ekchian, the district's chief labor negotiator. It's no secret that he would like to resolve protracted contract negotiations with United Teachers Los Angeles.

"It was as though nothing had changed," said Ekchian, comparing the past and present Cortines.

At about 2:30 p.m., he left to meet with Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of UTLA, at the union's Wilshire Boulevard headquarters.

It isn't clear whether UTLA was willing to reach a deal of any kind with Deasy, who had become a rallying point for union organizers who talked of strike preparations. Union leaders regard Cortines as more collaborative. But that doesn't mean Cortines is able or willing to offer a much better deal than his predecessor.

"Ray Cortines listened, and we had some preliminary conversations," Caputo-Pearl said.

Accompanying Cortines to the meeting was Deputy Supt. Michelle King, who had expressed interest to the board in serving as interim superintendent. It was Cortines who had urged her to do so, before the board began to pressure him to return.

Cortines has made it clear that he wanted King to play an integral role; his first meeting of the day was with her.

Also on Cortines' schedule were meetings with Ron Chandler, who heads the district's technology division, and chief strategy officer Matt Hill. They are managing the district's technology efforts; two troubled projects contributed to Deasy's departure.

The first was a $1.3-billion effort to provide an iPad to every student, teacher and campus administrator. Deasy recently announced he would relaunch the bidding process; more than 100,000 devices have been purchased. Cortines indicated he would reexamine the district's approach to classroom technology.

This fall, another issue emerged when a new student records system malfunctioned. Thousands of students had faulty schedules and lost instructional time or couldn't get courses they needed to graduate or fulfill college entrance requirements. Some seniors had troubled getting transcripts or grade point average calculations.

"I have to find out how that happened, who was asleep at the wheel," Cortines said. "How dare we do what we've done to some of these students and some of these parents and some of these schools — and some of those schools are the most needy ones."

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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