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L.A. school board poised to name Beutner as superintendent

L.A. school board poised to name Beutner as superintendent
Sources indicate that Austin Beutner, who has no experience managing a school or a school district, will get the job of leading the L.A. school district. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Board of Education went behind closed doors Tuesday afternoon to select the next superintendent of the nation's second-largest school system. Although the deliberation is behind closed doors, all signs pointed to the choice of philanthropist and former investment banker Austin Beutner.

The move into closed session came after lengthy public testimony, most of it in support of the other remaining finalist, interim Supt. Vivian Ekchian, who is well known within the school system.

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Most of the speakers supporting Ekchian were district parents, but some district employees also made a case for her. Several complained that they felt the decision already had been made and that their input was irrelevant.

"Everything was already up your sleeve," said parent Luz Maria Montoya, speaking in Spanish. "I wasted my gasoline."

Also on hand were five former school board members who criticized the apparent pending choice of Beutner. Former board member Jeff Horton called Beutner a "dilettante" who "moved from position to position with no particular history of success."

Beutner also had supporters in the room, but they tended to speak more indirectly, without mentioning Beutner's name, but talking of the need for sweeping change as well as bold and courageous leadership.

They were in an awkward position to cheer him on because Beutner, unlike Ekchian, has not publicly acknowledged his candidacy, and his supporters at the meeting took their cues from him.

Barring a last-minute development, the only mystery is whether Beutner emerges with four or five votes from the board's seven members. Terms of his contract already have been under discussion, according to sources close to the process who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak.

The selection of Beutner, 58, who has no experience managing a school or a school district, would be a signal that the board majority that took control nearly a year ago wants to rely on business management skills instead of insider educational expertise.

L.A. Unified has serious financial problems. The district faces rising pension costs, vastly underfunded retiree health benefits and union pressure to raise salaries — all as declining enrollment is draining financial resources.

Fixing that imbalance would be a central duty suited to Beutner's skill set, but L.A. Unified also has struggled academically. His efforts also would have to be in the service of better preparing students for higher education and careers, which is the school system's primary task.

"He's not an educator," said Ama Nyamekye, head of the local branch of Educators 4 Excellence, a nonprofit funded by foundations that recruits teachers to take part in policy debates. "You'd hope the board would have some plan for establishing a vision and philosophy for education and a team in the district that would complement his experience in finance and management."

The district has been without a permanent superintendent since September, when Michelle King went on medical leave. King announced in January that she had cancer and would not return to the job. While some district insiders criticized the search that began soon after as too rushed, others pointed out that the district had already been without a long-term leader for most of the school year.

Beutner's recent record in the public and private sector is marked by brief stays in important jobs and a couple of roles that involved analysis more than action.

In 2010, Beutner became first deputy mayor of L.A. under Antonio Villaraigosa, overseeing business and job development. He was part of the Villaraigosa administration for about a year, also filling in as interim director of the Department of Water and Power.

He ran for mayor in 2012 when Villaraigosa termed out, but his campaign never caught on and he dropped out early.

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In 2014, Beutner co-chaired the 2020 Commission, which made recommendations for the future of Los Angeles. He then became publisher and chief executive of The Times, but was fired after a year over disagreements about the newspaper's direction.

He became notably close to L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy during his tenure from 2011 through 2014. Deasy became a polarizing presence, with adamant admirers and vociferous critics. At Deasy's behest, Beutner served on a board that raised money to benefit local students but that was not under the control of the school district.

Over the last year, Beutner has co-chaired a task force that has presented recommendations to L.A. Unified for improving student attendance, managing its real estate and operating more openly.

He also lobbied for enlarging the presence within L.A. Unified of a charity he founded. This nonprofit, called Vision to Learn, provides glasses to low-income students. His group won a $6-million contract last year to help 60,000 students over two years.

In April, the district's legal counsel gave board members documents indicating that Vision to Learn had fallen far behind in helping students and that the school system was threatening to cancel the contract. Vision to Learn, which serves students in 10 states, countered that the district was responsible for the delays.

Besides Ekchian, there were two other finalists, former Baltimore Supt. Andres Alonso and Indianapolis Supt. Lewis​ ​Ferebee, withdrew from consideration.

Members of the board majority, which has been pushing for Beutner to be hired, were elected with the support of charter school backers.

Charters are privately operated public schools that compete with L.A. Unified for students. Their rapid growth has contributed to the school district's economic woes.

Charter advocates clearly consider Beutner an ally, though over the last year he has avoided the politically charged topic of charter schools as he has raised his profile with the school system. He currently serves on the board of the foundation that raises money for Granada Hills Charter High School and also is a past board member for ICEF Public Schools, a charter group with schools in South Los Angeles. Beutner has donated $300,000 to ICEF, said Parker Hudnut, ICEF's chief executive.

The charter-supported board majority includes Ref Rodriguez, whose tenure on the board has been tenuous since he was charged last fall with three felonies and more than two dozen misdemeanors in connection with alleged political money laundering — allegations he denies.

After the charges were filed, Rodriguez stepped down as board president but did not give up his seat. Rodriguez's uncertain future may be one reason behind the push to name a new superintendent quickly — while the majority was intact.

Beutner's backers have wanted to secure a more stable majority for Beutner by making sure he has a fifth vote. That vote seems likely to come from Richard Vladovic, who represents portions of South L.A. and the San Pedro area.

Kelly Gonez, who is considered part of the four-member board majority, reportedly has threatened in closed session to defect, saying she preferred to hire an educator. Gonez, who represents the east San Fernando Valley, was thought to favor Alonso. If Beutner is named Tuesday as expected, her vote will be closely watched.

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Rodriguez, meanwhile, was in court Monday. His attorney successfully petitioned to postpone his preliminary hearing from May 9 to July 23. Outside the courthouse, about 20 protesters called for Rodriguez's resignation, citing the criminal charges and a recent arrest for public drunkenness. They said he should not take part in voting for a superintendent.

Times staff writer Joy Resmovits contributed to this story.

UPDATES:

2:51 p.m.: This story has been updated with details of Tuesday's board meeting and comments from people who came to speak before the board.

This story was originally published April 30 at 7:15 p.m.

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