Cortines takes top schools job

When Los Angeles school board members named Ramon C. Cortines to head the nation’s second-largest school system Tuesday, they selected an experienced, respected educator who contrasts sharply with both his predecessor and a recent wave of acclaimed superintendents.

But Cortines, like others who have taken on struggling urban districts, has exhibited no fear of tangling with entrenched bureaucracies during a career in which he headed public schools in New York City, San Francisco, San Jose and Pasadena (twice). This is Cortines’ second turn in Los Angeles, where he was interim superintendent in 2000.

Cortines replaces retired Navy Vice Adm. David L. Brewer, who was bought out last week midway through a four-year contract. Cortines represents, in some ways, the antithesis of Brewer, a district outsider with no formal experience in public education. Cortines is already known and admired by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.


In hiring Brewer, board members had opted for a non-educator -- largely because they sought a fresh thinker, unwedded to the bureaucracy, unafraid to make bold, even unorthodox moves. Now, dissatisfied with the results, the board, led by a new majority, has turned to a career educator for precisely the same reasons.

“We will not do things the same way,” said Cortines, who became Brewer’s top deputy in April. “We are the urban sprawl, but it is time that we lock arms on behalf of our children.”

“We must put the students first, not special interests,” Cortines said. “And so there will be change and change will be good for all of us.”

The new schools chief will earn $250,000 a year for three years -- unchanged from his current salary and $50,000 less than his predecessor. He will forgo Brewer’s automatic $45,000 annual expense account, taking instead up to $10,000 for which he will submit reimbursement claims.

At 76, he differs from the new-wave superintendents causing a stir, including the youthful Cornell- and Harvard-educated Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., and such non-career educators as Chicago’s Arne Duncan, the nominee for U.S. secretary of education, and Joel Klein, schools chief in New York City, the nation’s largest school system.

Cortines earned his degrees at Pasadena College, now Point Loma Nazarene University, and worked his way up. He was fired as superintendent in Pasadena and later rehired, generally acclaimed in San Francisco, and popular with the public but harassed in New York City by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani until he quit.

He’s been credited with improving academic achievement -- modestly in some cases. He’s also handled crises: integration in Pasadena, bankruptcy that preceded his arrival in San Jose, an asbestos scare in New York schools.

Now he follows Brewer, who failed to win over board members despite gains in test scores and voters’ recent passage of a record $7-billion school construction bond. Brewer’s critics said he that mastered neither the politics of L.A. nor the district’s bureaucracy and that he moved too slowly. Cortines, they insisted, is likely to do better.

“It’s going to be ‘Sleepless in L.A.’ because he’s relentless,” said board member Richard Vladovic, who worked as an assistant superintendent under Cortines eight years ago. “Ray would call my office at 6 in the morning with the expectation that I’d be there.”

Echoing others, Vladovic described Cortines as firm but fair; decisive yet open-minded, never late for a meeting “because time was precious. He’s all about business, and it’s always about what’s best for kids. I never saw anything self-serving.”

As Brewer’s top deputy, Cortines quickly assumed responsibility for both day-to-day operations and long-term planning, allowing for a smooth transition into the top job.

Cortines immediately faces the challenge of $200 million to $400 million in midyear budget reductions, and similar levels of slashing are predicted for each of the next two years. In addition, he will oversee contentious union negotiations.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” Cortines said of the shortfall.

Even so, Cortines continues to insist that budget cuts are no excuse for failing to improve schools. He’s visited all 34 low-performing campuses that Brewer designated as “high priority.”

“I still have a sense of urgency and impatience that I don’t apologize for,” Cortines said, “because children only have nine months in a particular grade level.”

Cortines has long talked about placing a more intense focus on dropouts and about creating “real” accountability for administrators -- which, he said, has never existed in the school system.

In February 2007, while working for Villaraigosa, Cortines publicly blamed the “damn bureaucracy” that he said withheld a report on dropouts. But he added: “I’m not saying that the mayor’s office doesn’t have some blame also. What I am saying is that we have got to come together.”

He talks in similar terms now about unifying the vision of the Board of Education.

A periodic contender for superintendent here, Cortines said in a 2006 interview -- when the job was open -- that he would accept the position if it was offered. But he was unwilling to take part in the lengthy process set up to replace the retiring Roy Romer. And board members would not let him bypass it. They also harbored qualms because by then, Cortines was working as Villaraigosa’s senior education advisor -- and the mayor was trying to take over L.A. Unified.

Over the ensuing months, however, Cortines opened communications between the district and mayor’s office, winning the regard of L.A. Unified officials. Villaraigosa meanwhile counted on Cortines to guide the mayor’s nascent Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which has taken on improvement efforts at 10 low-achieving schools.

As superintendent, Cortines follows an African American administrator whose departure disturbed some black civic leaders. But Cortines’ deep roots in Los Angeles and in education have earned the unqualified support of some black leaders, including former school board member Genethia Hayes and civil rights attorney Connie Rice. And he’s worked amicably with African American board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte.

Cortines’ previous stint in L.A. came about after the forced buyout of then-superintendent Ruben Zacarias, whose exit had angered some Latino leaders. The school board ultimately urged him to remain. He refused, because he had said he’d stay only six months. He wanted to avoid any impression that he’d been angling for the job.

“I should have at least stayed a couple of years to implement what everybody said they wanted,” Cortines said this week.

During that period, Cortines brought forward a plan, never fully put in place, to trim central staff and reorganize operations while also fighting off a district breakup attempt.

“The baggage he brings from his prior stint could prevent him from being all that effective,” said one veteran staffer who requested anonymity because he didn’t want to publicly criticize his incoming boss. “Folks still see him as a hatchet man, someone who comes in to cut and leaves. There’s not a lot of trust in him.”

Another insider described him as “revered and feared.”

Cortines will describe conditions at a dirty campus or ineffective classroom with brutal and public candor; he’ll also marvel at successful programs and charter schools that he intends to replicate.

Key business leaders called for Cortines’ appointment when it became clear that Brewer would be leaving. A few expressed reservations, however, about a long stay. They characterized Cortines as a top-of-the-line traditional superintendent who, paradoxically, could manage the district well enough to postpone a needed full-force revolution. They said his presence in other school systems, though positive, never led directly to widespread reforms, an analysis Cortines disagrees with.

Marshall Tuck, who heads the mayor’s school-reform team, said skeptics underestimate Cortines. “Ray has the ability to lay out what needs to get done and hire the appropriate people to do that,” Tuck said. One immediate likely change is that this superintendent will appear only when needed at school board meetings, which can last all day. Cortines recently said he has no intention of squandering valuable hours.

When she heard this remark, board president Monica Garcia laughed.

“We have a lot to learn,” she said, “from Ray Cortines.”


Times staff writer Jason Song contributed to this article.