U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in a brief visit to Los Angeles on Tuesday, met with newly installed L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines to talk about local technology problems and the state of local schools.
Duncan's visit coincided with the second day on the job for Cortines and with the school board's formal approval of his contract.
The Board of Education voted unanimously and without discussion, for Cortines to work through June at a prorated annual salary of $300,000, $50,000 less than his predecessor John Deasy, who resigned Oct. 15.
Cortines, a former leader of the district who came out of retirement to take the job, may have a relatively brief tenure, but, as he noted, his title is superintendent, and he intends to assert his authority.
On Tuesday that meant a quick meeting with Duncan at Walt Disney Concert Hall and an exchange regarding the district's technology challenges. Duncan was in town for a conference on early childhood education.
"We talked about a couple of things, and he's going to come back to me," Duncan said in an interview. "But the technology issues are sort of the top of his list now."
Cortines was not available to discuss his meeting with Duncan, but the superintendent must decide how to proceed with a signature Deasy initiative: providing a computer — originally intended to be an iPad — to every student, teacher and campus administrator. Like Deasy, Cortines must make sure schools can handle new and computerized standardized tests. But he's not as ready as Deasy to leave textbooks behind in favor of an all-digital curriculum.
The federal government has played a crucial role in delivering funds to link schools to the Internet. District officials also would like outside assistance in extending Internet access to neighborhoods where students live.
"We're going to talk further. We're trying to be helpful," Duncan said without elaboration.
Duncan had high praise for improvements in L.A. Unified under Deasy's leadership.
"In a short amont of time, John Deasy did a fantastic job of accelerating the rate of student learning," said Duncan, who noted that others, including teachers, share the credit.
"The travesty would be somehow if those improvements slow down and stall," he added.
He called Cortines' willingness to return, at 82, "a profile in courage."
"Personally, I feel like I owe him so much for stepping into a very tough situation when there are a lot of easier things he can be doing with his time," Duncan said.
L.A. now has something in common with some other big-city school districts: leaders who were rebuffed in efforts to transform districts with controversial policies. Those policies include boosting independent charter schools and revamping teacher evaluations to include student test scores.
At the end of his first day, Cortines said he felt tired but "exhilarated and pleasantly pleased with how enthusiastic I found the leadership group."
He added: "I'm going to go home and do 400 sit-ups, and then I'm going to have two glasses of medicinal. Maybe red wine tonight."