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New Face in L.A. Unified No Stranger to Crises

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

In Pasadena, they still remember--and admire--the way Ramon C. Cortines stood up to the Board of Education in the aftermath of a bitter fight over court-ordered school desegregation in the late 1970s.

With an archly conservative board majority attacking teachers as communists and banning books as blasphemous, meetings had to regularly be held in a junior high auditorium to accommodate crowds in the hundreds.

But Cortines, who on Thursday was tapped to become interim superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District in January, stood his ground, acting as a buffer between the board majority and the district’s educators.

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“He was under siege,” said the Rev. George van Alstine, a prominent minister who later became a member of the Board of Education. “He wasn’t going to let them micromanage the district around him.”

Cortines was fired in 1978, when he refused to hire as second-in-command an administrator backed by the board. He remembers it as a particularly painful low point in his 42-year career as an educator. Nonetheless, he ultimately triumphed: Less than two years later, he was brought back by a board from which voters had purged most of his opponents.

As superintendent, he said, “you are the No. 1 manager and educator in the district, and you have to provide leadership, and you have to expect leadership of those who work for you.”

A Tough, Successful Educator

The Los Angeles Board of Education this week saw Cortines, now 67 and in no need of a job, demonstrate his toughness once again. When the board acted in a way contrary to his wishes, he said publicly that he would be happy to walk away. And that embarrassing possibility, sources said, forced the board to hire him, essentially on the terms he deemed necessary for a smooth transition.

After leaving Pasadena, Cortines went on to successfully command the school districts in San Jose and San Francisco and, briefly, New York. In each case, he faced enormous challenges--financial troubles, raising low expectations for students and winning over skeptical school boards.

Admirers call him a compassionate realist who generally is able to win over opponents with openness, candor and, if necessary, sheer toughness and canny maneuvering.

His overriding concerns, they say, have been helping all children maximize their potential for learning and pressing schools to raise their expectations.

“He cares about kids, he just feels it in his heart,” said James W. Guthrie, who as an education professor at UC Berkeley watched Cortines closely during his stint in San Francisco.

In addition, he said, Cortines “is this no-nonsense guy, who doesn’t have to kowtow to anyone . . . and can speak truth to power like few others can.”

Although Guthrie, now at Vanderbilt University, questioned whether Cortines has what it takes to achieve long-term improvement in a school district, he said his skills are particularly well-suited to serving on an interim basis.

“If it’s truly a cleanup operation to get the district ready for a long-term strategy, then I think he’s excellent for this,” Guthrie said.

Dan Kelly, a member of the San Francisco Board of Education who was first elected during Cortines’ tenure, agreed.

“He would not allow it to occur for schools to open without books in place, teachers hired and schools ready on time,” Kelly said. “That kind of administrative stuff is really his forte, getting the small details taken care of and making sure everyone understands that the basic aspects of their jobs are very important.”

Experienced With Asbestos Abatement

On the same day Cortines was hired it was announced that students may be being exposed to potentially cancer-causing asbestos through hundreds of construction projects in the district. Cortines faced asbestos crises when he began in San Francisco, in 1986, and then again when he went to New York, in 1993.

In San Francisco, he formed an asbestos council that included teachers, parents, administrators, health department representatives and activists on the issue. Characteristically moderate, Cortines pressed for a solution that required the rebuilding of only one high school and repairs elsewhere.

In New York, he was handed an asbestos abatement program that was behind schedule. He delayed the opening of school 11 days until he was assured the schools were safe.

In each case, he won accolades for reaching out to everyone concerned to find a solution. He also was highly visible, showing up at schools unannounced, dropping in on student performances and wading into crowds of teachers.

Everywhere he has gone, he has had a policy of trying to return calls the same day to any parent or teacher with a concern. In San Francisco, for example, he routinely arrived at his desk around 6 a.m. and for the next hour answered the telephone himself--speaking with anyone who dialed in.

At times, he would get involved in an issue at a school and make a snap judgment as to who was right or wrong, without knowing all the facts. That made him unpopular, at times, with administrators or teachers. But it won him accolades from parents.

An Early-Rising Workaholic

When he moved to New York in 1993, he made it a habit to be the first to arrive at district headquarters--often after having taken a run across the Brooklyn Bridge. What then ensued were workdays that frequently stretched to 14 hours.

Cortines said he was such a workaholic during his tenure in San Jose that the board insisted he take a long weekend at least once a month. Usually, that meant slipping away to his ranch east of Visalia, in the foothills near Sequoia National Park below a 7,000-foot peak.

He expected that same intensity of others and, when he did not get it, sometimes publicly berated employees.

“Top management has a responsibility to help everybody be successful,” he said in an interview. “But when they’re not, and you’ve done everything, you have to cut your losses.”

In his new job, it’s not clear that he plans to have the same intensity. He has said he may work part time, at least for a while.

But he will still have a full plate of issues--including negotiating new contracts with nine employee groups. Already, United Teachers-Los Angeles, which represents teachers in the district, is picketing to make its demands known.

The teachers’ demand for a 6% raise would cost $125 million and possibly require the district to put off for a year its plan to end the practice of promoting poorly prepared students to the next grade. Cortines, already standing firm, has said he will not delay termination of social promotion.

Going into that issue, however, he brings with him a track record of working well with teachers and their unions.

Joan-Marie Shelley, the former head of United Educators of San Francisco, recalled a time when Cortines had come to the conclusion that he would have to recommend layoffs of teachers in order to balance the district’s budget. In a meeting with Shelley, Cortines offered to make the announcement to the union’s delegate assembly and, improbably, he won them over.

“He delivered the news to the teachers so compassionately . . . that they stood up and gave him a standing ovation,” she recalled. “I couldn’t believe it. He’s telling them this awful news, that . . . people they know are going to lose their jobs and they give him a standing ovation.”

Cortines grew up in San Francisco in a middle-class home, adopted by a Castilian father and a British mother. His biological mother was Mexican American.

He said he was a mischievous kid who tried the patience of his teachers. But his parents were committed to education and, to broaden his horizons, they insisted that he visit museums.

After a stint in the Army, he earned a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from Pasadena College, which later relocated to San Diego and became Point Loma Nazarene College. His teaching career began in Aptos, Calif., in 1956.

Cortines’ last superintendent’s job, as chancellor of the New York public schools, ended with his resignation in 1995 after two years. He quit, he said, because he was tired of fighting Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani over the district’s budget, over whether city police should patrol schools and other issues.

Although he was there only briefly, he made some dramatic changes--ending low-level math and science classes, implementing a districtwide framework for instruction and authorizing $10,000 bonuses for schools that raised the test scores of all students--not just those that were already doing well.

During his tenure, math and reading scores went up slightly in all 32 of the districts that make up the New York City school system.

Although the salary for his new position has not been determined, he currently earns about $100,000 a year from his work as a consultant and a director of several companies; in addition, he receives about $100,000 a year as a retiree. It’s unclear how his new job will affect either of those sources of income.

Most recently, Cortines has been affiliated with Stanford University, where he is executive director of the Pew Network for Standards-Based Reform. Among his other affiliations is a position on the board of directors of the Edison Project, the largest private operator of public schools in the country.

This week he said his experience will serve him well--on a temporary basis--in Los Angeles. “I’m not saying I’m the best, but I do know a little,” he said. “I will stub my toe and make some mistakes, but at least I won’t be covering my rear.”

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Ramon Cortines’ Career

1953-55

Served in U.S. Army 6th Division.

1956

Received bachelor’s degree in education from Pasadena College, now Point Loma Nazarene College.

1964

Received master’s degree in school administration from Pasadena College.

1966

Received master’s degree in adult learning from Pasadena College.

1956-66

Taught in elementary, middle and high school in Aptos, Calif., and in Covina.

1966-68

Was director of student activities at South Hills High School in West Covina.

1972-78 and 1979-1984

Was superintendent of schools for Pasadena Unified School District. Managed the district during a time of crisis related to a court-ordered busing plan and community backlash. Later helped the district cope with a budget crisis.

1984-86

Was superintendent of schools in San Jose. Negotiated a new contract with employee groups that made it possible for the district to emerge from bankruptcy.

1986-92

Was superintendent of schools for San Francisco United School District. Instituted a common curriculum and achieved modest improvements in student achievement; pushed for all students to take algebra in middle school.

1993

Was consultant for U.S. Department of Education.

Sept. 1993 - Oct. 1995

New York City schools chancellor. Required all students to take Regents math and science, doing away with so-called bonehead courses. Test scores increased in all 32 districts.

1995

is executive director of the Pew Network for Standards-Based Reform at Stanford University. Working with eight medium-size school districts from across the country to implement more challenging academic standards.

He is a trustee of Brown University, R.I.; a trustee of the J. Paul Getty Trust; a member of the Board of Directors of Scholastic Inc.; and a member of the Board of Governors of the San Francisco Symphony.


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