Key L.A. Unified staff positions are funded privately

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Private money is paying for key senior staff positions in the Los Angeles Unified School District -- providing needed expertise at a bargain rate, but also raising questions about transparency and the direction of reformsin the nation’s second-largest school system.

The highest-level outside-funded position belongs to Matt Hill, whose salary is covered by the foundation of billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad. Hill is overseeing the district’s high-profile effort through which groups inside or outside L.A. Unified could take over new and low-performing schools.

The pay of more than a dozen others is funded by a nearly $4.4-million grant from the Wasserman Foundation, a $1.2-million grant from the Walton Family Foundation and smaller amounts from the Hewlett and the Ford foundations.

These employees and consultants are developing a new system to evaluate teachers and administrators; streamlining district operations; and developing a more transparent budget and enhanced student data.

All are ultimately under the supervision of Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, who was unavailable for comment Tuesday but insisted recently that he’s in full control of the newcomers and the agenda.

“It started with Supt. Cortines having a conversation with Mr. Broad,” said Hill, who began working for L.A. Unified nearly a year ago. “The superintendent said, ‘This is everything I want to do in the district.’ And Mr. Broad said, ‘You need help.’ ”

Cortines and Broad have a longstanding relationship: Cortines helped Broad develop an academy to train school district leaders, and both have supported local arts-related causes. But Broad has recently questioned whether Cortines, now one year into the top job, has moved with sufficient boldness at L.A. Unified, both say.

Cortines has been hampered by a budget crisis that shrank his staff and limited new hires.

Broad offered to pay for Hill, a Broad academy graduate who had helped manage school reforms in Oakland. It’s common for the foundation to match people it has trained with districts, and initially to help pay for it, said Dan Katzir, the foundation’s managing director. Hill’s salary is $160,000; the district funds his benefits.

Cortines also approached other foundations, Hill said. “If there was not funding, it would fall on existing staff taking on day-to-day operations and trying to transform the district at the same time,” he said. “It would move a lot slower.”

Hill oversees the school-control project that the Board of Education approved in August. The bidders for the 30 campuses include charter schools, and Broad’s foundation has provided millions locally to spur such schools’ growth. But the district, Hill and Broad’s foundation insist there’s a firewall between the funding for Hill and his work.

To former Principal Judith Perez, hiring top-level officials with outside money suggests a distrust of internal talent and an undervaluing of institutional memory. The president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, she also voiced concern about the Wal-Mart-endowed Walton Family Foundation, which has supported publicly funded scholarships for low-income children to attend private schools.

Most of the Walton money that L.A. Unified receives pays for research to help develop a data system to determine which schools and programs and, possibly, which teachers are most effective.

The foundation sees its support of reform in L.A. Unified as giving “more power and choice to parents who have been forced to send their children to low-performing schools,” said Jim Blew, Walton’s director for K-12 education reform.

The Wasserman Foundation, headed by entertainment/sports entrepreneur Casey Wasserman, pays for instructional officer Geno Flores ($150,000), teacher-effectiveness advisor Drew Furedi ($128,000) and other posts related to finding cost savings and developing a new budgeting system.

The closest past parallel might be the influx, in the late 1990s, of pro bono advisors from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. who secretly advised then-Supt. Ruben Zacarias. They also had ties to former Mayor Richard Riordan and other district critics, who eventually became disenchanted with Zacarias. Riordan helped elect a new school-board majority, which quickly replaced the veteran educator.

The consultants were “very positive, very helpful,” Zacarias said Tuesday. “At the same time I understood that the mayor had referred them to me. I was aware they were a conduit of information for other people.”

He added: “Any time you bring in people funded from the outside you have to be aware that they have allegiance to the outside interest. It’s up to Cortines to be aware of the perspectives.”