The Cortines effect

The Los Angeles Unified School District was in crisis mode. The school board had hired a superintendent, expecting great things, but was unimpressed with his performance. It needed a rescuer, and found one in Ramon C. Cortines, an education veteran who could be counted on as an able administrator in difficult times.

That was in 2000. And in 2008 too.

Supt. Cortines confirmed this week what he has been hinting at for months: He plans to retire in the spring after seeing the district through terrible budget cuts, partly successful attempts to bring about change at the worst-performing schools and a wave of new reform demands from the federal government.

The district has been lucky to have one of the most able crisis managers in the field of education — not once but twice. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Cortines would have been the right choice for the long-term leadership of the district, something that he made clear he wasn’t seeking anyway. In neither of his stints with Los Angeles Unified did he distinguish himself by instigating the kinds of sweeping reforms that Roy Romer brought about — a historic school construction effort to ease terrible overcrowding and the revamping of the reading curriculum.

But after the inadequate stewardship of retired Vice Adm. David L. Brewer III and as schools fell on hard financial times, Cortines possessed exactly the right skills to take the reins. He was brought on in April 2008 as senior deputy. It quickly became clear that Cortines was calling most of the shots, and later that year the board wisely bought out Brewer’s contract and let Cortines carry on. That was his second rescue mission for the district. In 2000, he took over as interim superintendent after Supt. Ruben Zacarias bowed out following a term that was widely perceived as lackluster.

Cortines is especially known as an able budget trimmer, and he made the painful cuts necessitated by the state’s budget crisis as judiciously as possible. Part of that involved dismantling some of the inappropriately huge central bureaucracy that Romer had built up. Cortines also worked with the unions to develop agreements for furlough time and a shorter academic year that allowed the district to reduce spending while limiting the number of layoffs.

He was refreshingly blunt about the district’s shortcomings, supporting the Green Dot charter takeover of Locke High School after delivering a scathing critique of the school’s problems under district management. And he instituted the newly begun reconstitution of John C. Fremont High School, an equally troubled school.

Although he was not the originator of the Public School Choice: A New Way at LAUSD initiative, which gives outside groups the chance to bid for management of new and failing schools in the district, Cortines embraced the concept and moved it forward in an organized and transparent way. His recommendations as to which organizations should run the first round of schools were thoughtful and precise.

Had it been left in his hands, the initiative would have gotten off to a much more promising start. Unfortunately, the school board, which has a bad habit of running roughshod over its superintendents, ignored several of his recommendations — awarding almost all of the schools to teacher groups instead of allowing high-quality charter organizations to take a few more of the schools. The board also insisted on running community advisory votes before the actual choices. The campaigns before those votes became ugly and cast a pall over the entire effort.

The never-ending cuts, plus superiors who don’t listen — not only the board but also the U.S. Department of Education, which declined to consider Cortines’ worthy request to allow the district to apply for its own Race to the Top grant instead of joining the state application — make the superintendency of L.A.'s schools one of the most difficult public jobs around. Cortines turned 78 on Thursday. After twice bringing sane, plainspoken management to Los Angeles Unified in troubled times, even this noted workaholic must be feeling ready for his retirement.