L.A. Unified head quits board of Scholastic Inc.

Los Angeles schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines resigned Thursday from the board of Scholastic Inc. after increased scrutiny of his relationship with the school-district vendor that paid him compensation worth more than $150,000 last year.

Scholastic provides the district’s primary reading intervention program and has received more than $16 million over the last five years from contracts with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Cortines has recused himself from matters pertaining to Scholastic, but the company’s substantial district business has complicated that approach.

In a statement, Cortines said he stepped down “to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest as I carry out my duties as superintendent of the nation’s second-largest school district and to reaffirm my commitment to our students, parents, teachers and administrators.”

Cortines’ dual roles came under criticism from former school board members in a Times’ article last week. Current school board members either declined to comment, said they were unaware of it or defended the superintendent.

One school board member asked Cortines this week to review his service with Scholastic during a previously scheduled closed-door meeting. The ensuing discussion lasted five minutes, Cortines said, and no board member pressed the matter further.

Board President Monica Garcia said last week that she saw nothing of interest in the Scholastic association. On Thursday, she reiterated: “I have never met a person with more integrity than Ray Cortines.”

Cortines said he spoke to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for 45 minutes about the issue -- at the mayor’s instigation. Cortines said Villaraigosa made no demands.

The veteran superintendent, who has served on the Scholastic board for 15 years, disclosed his financial relationship with the New York-based company on standard government forms. It did not violate district policy, officials said, as long as he recused himself from any district matter involving the educational publishing company. And, the school board that hired him apparently never discussed Scholastic with him -- although Cortines said Thursday that they knew of the connection.

District officials said Cortines made no decisions affecting the company .

On Thursday, Cortines said he became upset over the implicit impugning of his integrity.

“There’s no doubt I was angry because everybody has known,” he said. “For it to be raised and made an issue of two years after I came to the district -- I was taken aback.”

His specific remuneration with Scholastic is detailed in paperwork filed with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. For 2009, Cortines’ compensation from Scholastic totaled $151,186. Of that, $82,500 was in fees earned or cash payments; $36,042 in stock awards, and $32,644 in option awards. His compensation for 2008 was $165,785; for 2007, $122,406.

Cortines, a prominent figure in education, joined L.A. Unified in April 2008 as the district’s No. 2 administrator and became superintendent eight months later. His salary has remained at $250,000, below average for a leader of a large school district.

Scholastic, the U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter series, dominates the national market for book club and book fair sales to students. These are typically marketed through schools, teachers and librarians.

A year before Cortines joined the school system, the district specified Read 180 -- a Scholastic product -- as its primary reading intervention for high schools. And this fall Read 180 became a major component for improving lagging reading skills at low-performing middle schools.

The district has paid Scholastic more than $5.2 million since Cortines joined L.A. Unified.

This month, Read 180 came up in the context of a new school reform policy. Under it, groups inside and outside the school system are bidding to run 12 persistently low-performing schools and 18 new campuses.

Cortines is making the final recommendations to the Board of Education about who should run each campus. Some of the proposed reform plans incorporate Read 180 and some do not.

On Thursday, Cortines said he became concerned that his Scholastic tie would become a “straw man” for other agendas, and a potential impediment to his reform efforts which, he said, have “stepped on people’s toes.”

He added that he worried about the issue tainting the campaign to pass a parcel tax in June. If passed, the $100 levy on property owners could partially ease the school system’s precipitous budget woes.

“It’s an uphill battle to pass the parcel tax, and I would not want to be a part of the reason in the long run that we couldn’t come together,” he said.

Cortines, 77, said the motivation for his 15-year association with Scholastic was the chance to do something different outside of the public sector.

“I’ve always thought it would be interesting to play a role in the management of private enterprise and this is probably, in my career, as close as it will ever get,” he said.

“We will miss his wise counsel and his deep understanding of the critical issues we face as a nation in our efforts to improve the quality of education for all children,” Scholastic Chief Executive Richard Robinson said in a statement.

Cortines and Scholastic officials said his oversight duties had nothing to do with pursuing business opportunities with individual clients, such as L.A. Unified.

Over the last week, however, Cortines’ critics have been quick to perceive a damning link between Cortines’ corporate connection and district decisions, including the one to force the entire staff at Fremont High to re-interview for jobs as part of an improvement plan that the superintendent is overseeing.

“It’s not cynical to think that part of the reason for the reconstitution at Fremont was to bring more Scholastic programs to L.A. Unified through Fremont High,” said Mat Taylor, a regional teachers union leader who teaches English there.

“There’s a financial agenda that people are afraid to talk about that guides what happens in public education.”

Cortines said he wants to put an end to such talk: “I made a decision. I have it behind me, and I’m moving forward.”