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Once -- and Possibly Future -- L.A. Unified Chief Is Back

Times Staff Writer

When Ray Cortines took charge of the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2000, its problems were overwhelming: poor test scores, dilapidated campuses, a fractious school board, a divided administration, massive overcrowding and a disastrous school construction effort headlined by the Belmont Learning Complex scandal. Legislators talked seriously about breaking up the nation’s second-largest school system.

So what was the agenda of the veteran educator who, as a superintendent elsewhere, had dueled with Mayor Rudy Giuliani in New York, integrated schools in Pasadena and brought back San Jose schools from bankruptcy?

Books and bathrooms.

Interim Supt. Cortines proclaimed that by the time he left, all students would have all their textbooks and access to clean restrooms.

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Ramon C. Cortines is back, starting today, in a different role, as the top education advisor to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. And once again, the fit, self-assured 74-year-old educator is striding into conflict, this time over Villaraigosa’s bid for substantial authority over L.A.'s public schools.

Cortines’ current message is about rhetorical disarmament and an agenda far more ambitious than books and bathrooms.

“It is important that a working dialogue is created between the school district and the unions and the mayor’s office” -- regardless of whether the mayor gets new powers, Cortines said in an interview Monday.

In other words, Villaraigosa may choose to bash the school district as a failing institution -- especially if that’s what’s needed to win the political battle over control -- but Cortines will play the role of good cop. That includes a meeting today with schools Supt. Roy Romer, who has chastised the mayor for saying the district is failing.

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Cortines’ approach is a model of consistency. In 2000, he also played peacemaker, refusing to become interim superintendent without the OK of outgoing Supt. Ruben Zacarias, who had just been dumped by a slim school board majority. Cortines also set to work immediately on knitting together a fractious school board.

And for public consumption -- amid a clamor for breaking up the school system -- there was the mantra of books and bathrooms.

The implied message was simple: If we can neither keep our bathrooms clean nor get enough textbooks to students, then we have no business being in business. But if we do make instant headway on this ridiculously straightforward agenda, then we will earn credibility, buy some time and perhaps have a chance to move from triage to lasting reform.

“I want to be clear,” said Cortines at a public appearance last week, “we can’t do everything. It is important that we focus on two or three major areas to get us going together as a partnership.”

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But this time books and bathrooms won’t cut it. This time, Cortines is working for a mayor who has repeatedly cast the school system as failing because of lagging achievement in middle and high schools -- and because of a dropout rate that some experts say hovers at 50%.

“We can improve student achievement and lower the dropout rate,” Villaraigosa said last week, “but only if we recognize that the current structure of LAUSD is not working.” Cortines, he said, “shares a philosophy that we can do better.... I wanted somebody who was a change agent.”

Educators cautioned that the dropout problem has proved to be among the most intractable in public education.

“The problem with fixing something like dropouts is that you can’t say the reason students drop out is X,” said Richard W. Clark, a longtime school district administrator. “In reality, it’s X, Y, Z and Q. It’s tied up in what’s happening in the community as well as what’s going on in the schools.

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“I don’t think anybody has come close to the magic bullet on it yet,” added Clark, who’s affiliated with the Seattle-based Institute for Educational Inquiry.

Raising student achievement at the high school level, too, has been difficult for school systems nationwide. Some school districts have increased the dropout rate by nudging the low achievers out the door.

“When I was superintendent in San Francisco,” Cortines said, “the school district used to brag about its small class sizes. So I decided to look into that. We, in essence, had gotten rid of a lot of students to create small classes, and we didn’t care about the ones who were no longer there.

“In Los Angeles, one of the first issues I will raise is: How do we develop a protocol for documenting dropouts? We don’t know how many we have and what schools are dealing with that issue and how.”

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In his prior L.A. Unified stint, the imprint of Cortines’ decisions was not especially deep. Notably, the cancellations of the district’s two major construction projects -- the star-crossed Belmont Learning Complex and a South Gate high school -- have since been reversed. Most of Cortines’ school construction team has long since left. An initiative to end social promotion got scaled back. And a high-profile decentralization plan, developed to silence talk of breaking up the school system, was not embraced by Romer, a former Colorado governor.

But Cortines left a mark by continuing the district’s evolution toward a phonics-based reading program. And he set an example by devoting early mornings to visiting schools and addressing individual campus problems.

“He was a blast of Prozac,” said school board member David Tokofsky. “As an expert urban superintendent, he kind of said, ‘This place can do it and is going to do it.’ The school board was ready to hire him for more years.”

Cortines’ books-and-bathrooms agenda helped restore credibility and gave Romer room to aim higher. Romer has pursued his own two-themed mantra: building schools and lifting elementary-school achievement.

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Romer aimed for the long term, hoping to benefit generations of students.

Put another way, he was more engrossed in building for the future than reducing the current harm. That meant less initial effort to patrol bathrooms -- and less focus on dropouts among the generation too old to benefit from either his elementary school reforms or his pantheon of new schools.

Romer has since conceded the school district’s inattention to dropouts and assigned new resources to prevention.

Romer, who plans to leave his post as early as this fall, has joined the chorus of those praising Cortines, which leads some to ask: Why doesn’t Villaraigosa or the school board hire Cortines as the next L.A. schools chief?

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He was -- and apparently is -- willing and had even formally applied for the job, but Villaraigosa “convinced me that I could be more helpful in advising him.”

Clearly, the mayor is still considering whom he’d like as superintendent. Besides, Villaraigosa won’t have control over the decision unless and until the Legislature gives him the authority. State lawmakers are expected to act on the matter this month.

School board member Mike Lansing said he wouldn’t automatically look to Cortines, despite giving him high marks for crisis management.

“I want to see who is the best option. We don’t want a turnaround candidate. We don’t need one.”

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Still, Lansing welcomes Cortines back to the fray and hopes that Cortines has the chance to make an impact as a mayoral advisor, a job with uncertain authority.

“I kind of likened it to having Babe Ruth in charge of the snack shack,” said Lansing. “But he brings to the mayor’s office a lot more reality about public education and what’s facing the school district.”


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