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L.A. school board makes a bold, controversial choice in Beutner

Austin Beutner was named superintendent of Los Angeles schools on Tuesday.

The Los Angeles school board made a bold and controversial move Tuesday in selecting former investment banker Austin Beutner to lead the nation's second-largest school system.

Beutner, 58, has no background leading a school or school district, and the choice contrasts sharply with the one a different board made less than 2½ years ago, when it named Michelle King, a former teacher who rose through the ranks, to be superintendent.

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The former deputy mayor and Los Angeles Times publisher was hired on a 5-2 vote. A board majority elected with major support from charter-school advocates was pivotal in pushing for him, although the move was as much as anything else about signaling a desire for aggressive change.

King's ascension had been a vote of faith in the familiar and the steady but real progress district leaders believed they were making. She stood for stability, which was especially prized after the stormy tenure of Supt. John Deasy, followed by the relatively short stay of Ramon C. Cortines, who had come out of retirement to try to right the ship.

A primary focus of King's mission, as established by the previous board majority, had been to increase enrollment by trying to win students back from charter schools and, if possible, to stem rapid charter growth.

But for the current board majority, Beutner, with private-sector financial expertise, is the leader of the moment — when the school system faces a potential financial crisis caused by soaring pension costs, underfunded retiree health benefits and the disappearing state dollars due to declining enrollment.

"Years of trying to solve seemingly intractable problems require some new, out-of-the-box thinking," said board Vice President Nick Melvoin, who took office in July. "I'm confident Mr. Beutner, along with the board, can bring some innovative thinking to this. We have to disenthrall ourselves from the idea that the status quo is good enough for kids."

Beutner and members of the board majority seem unlikely to continue targeting charter schools as part of the problem. On the contrary, they are widely expected to take steps to encourage their growth in a range of schooling options for families, especially with academic performance lagging at many traditional campuses.

That means the district has to look to other ways to increase revenue — a goal held in common with the prior board — and may try to reduce district spending by shrinking the traditional school system. Savings could come through employee layoffs, closing campuses and freezing or reducing salaries and benefits.

Had King stayed on the job, she might have had to take some of these same steps. She was unable to stem the enrollment decline before she went on medical leave in September. She never returned, and announced in January that she had cancer and would retire.

Beutner has had two direct and recent interactions with L.A. Unified. The first is through the nonprofit group he founded, Vision to Learn, which has a contract to provide vision screening and glasses to low-income district students. The second is through an outside task force, which he co-chairs, that has been examining the district's problems and so far has made suggestions for improving student attendance, getting more revenue out of district-owned real estate and operating more transparently.

Now Beutner will have the chance to act on the advice.

District students "are the future of our community, and every policy we adopt and every decision we make must be with the sole focus of doing everything we can to provide them with the best education possible," the new superintendent said in a statement.

Beutner's supporters say he has the right skills and motivation.

"I have been in nonprofit work for more than 35 years and just recently retired, and working with Austin has been one the most pleasurable experiences of my life," said Jan Sobel, who headed the Boys & Girls Club of the West Valley and sits on the advisory board of Vision to Learn. "He is a great organizational leader, always keeping his mission and vision in the forefront of everything he does, hires the right people in the right jobs, motivates everyone to keep moving forward and is gracious and kind at the same time."

Although Beutner's selection represents a triumph for the new board majority and Beutner's backers, the mood after the vote was subdued, weary, almost stony-faced, reflecting a difficult push-and-pull behind closed doors. Beutner made no appearance. No board member made a speech — which is truly a rare event — and it was distinctly difficult to distinguish the pleased from the displeased. It no doubt didn't help that before they took their vote behind closed doors, board members heard from plenty of students, parents and educators who told them they thought Beutner was a bad choice.

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The key decision, it turns out, had been made confidentially some time earlier, when the board voted 4 to 3 on April 20 to begin contract negotiations with Beutner. On that day, three of the four board members considered to be charter-school allies backed him. The fourth vote came from Richard Vladovic, with whom Beutner has a strong professional friendship.

Over the last 10 days, district leaders hammered out a three-year contract that will pay Beutner, like King, $350,000 annually. Beutner supporters also were hoping to win over Kelly Gonez, the member of the charter-backed majority who initially did not support Beutner.

Gonez confirmed Tuesday that her preference had been for an educator and that she'd been impressed by another finalist, Andres Alonso. But Alonso pulled out of consideration on April 23. Technically, he already was out of the running by then, but his firm exit took away Gonez's argument in his favor. If Beutner was inevitably going to get the job, she said, it might matter for him to begin stronger, with a less divided board.

"We can't afford for our next superintendent to fail," she said in an interview. "In light of those things and also in light of the dire financial issues, I made the decision to ultimately support his contract. It was a difficult decision for me, and I lost sleep over it."

Board member George McKenna strongly preferred Vivian Ekchian, the last remaining other finalist for the job. She has spent her career in the district and has been running it on an interim basis since King went on medical leave and asked her to step in.

"It was important for me to have a person with experience in the field," McKenna said. "We're paying $350,000 to a trainee. That's an interesting anti-school concept — that anyone can run a school district because schools aren't working well.… You can drop a bomb and be bold and change the whole landscape."

Both McKenna and Scott Schmerelson, who also voted no, suggested that the entire months-long search had been a sham.

"I apologize to the dedicated parents and constituents who have been advocating for a voice in the superintendent selection process," Schmerelson said in a statement. For the last 10 days, "every member of the board knew that a decision had already been made while pretending to be maintaining an open mind toward all the candidates who were deemed finalists. These 10 days have been extremely painful for me personally."

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Schmerelson also accused the board majority of refusing "to exercise due diligence regarding Mr. Beutner's lengthy and tangled business affairs."

Schmerelson did not cite an example, but Beutner, who is wealthy, has wide-ranging investments and a complex business background.

Ekchian's supporters asserted in public comments before the board that her diverse experience within the district made her almost uniquely qualified, and that she had performed well in running the district over the last year. They expressed outrage about a decision that they said had been made in private, without their input.

Parent activist Roberto Fonseca said that Ekchian, not Beutner, had the appropriate experience. If you have a heart attack, he said, "do you want a doctor to come and help you or a priest to come and help you?"

Five former school board members also came before the board to try to dissuade members from picking Beutner. Former board member Jeff Horton called Beutner a "dilettante" who "moved from position to position with no particular history of success."

Beutner's recent record in the public and private sector is marked by brief stays in important jobs.

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 when Villaraigosa termed out, but his campaign never caught on, and he dropped out months before the 2013 election.

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.

Twitter: @howardblume

UPDATES:

9:55 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with new comments about the vote and details of the board meeting.

4:35 p.m.: This article has been updated with the vote count and details of Austin Beutner's salary.

This article was originally published at 4:25 p.m.

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