L.A. Unified hires Gates Foundation official as deputy superintendent

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A top official with the influential Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was chosen Tuesday as second in command in the Los Angeles Unified School District, raising speculation that he would be a top candidate for superintendent within two years.

The Board of Education hired John Deasy as deputy superintendent in a 6-0 vote in closed session. Board vice president Yolie Flores abstained because she has accepted a job funded by the Seattle-based Gates Foundation.

Deasy, 49, has deep experience in local and large school systems and, more recently, worked in the forefront of the foundation’s nationwide efforts to change the way teachers are evaluated.

“I firmly believe Los Angeles is going to be the center of education reform in the next five years,” Deasy said. “I believe deeply in what can happen and what is poised to happen for the youth here.”

Deasy’s contract calls for an annual salary of $275,000 — $25,000 more than Supt. Ramon C. Cortines — with an 11-month term, starting in August. Like other employees, he’ll be docked for seven unpaid furlough days next year. His appointment was approved the same day the district formally approved a budget that will result in several thousand layoffs.

At Gates, Deasy was deputy director for effective teaching, one of several deputies under the foundation’s top education administrator. Deasy managed the process through which school districts and charter schools apply for grants to develop new teacher-evaluation methods that include linking instructors to their students’ test scores. He also recommended which school systems should receive the handful of grants.

A group of five Los Angeles charter school management companies won $60 million last November. In other places, the foundation gave the money to the local school district. But L.A. Unified was too large, Deasy said, for the available funding and, at the time, California laws gave charters — and not school districts — the needed flexibility to pursue teacher evaluation reforms. Over the years, the Gates Foundation has provided minimal funding to L.A. Unified compared to other school systems.

Some observers have characterized the district as resistant, or simply in disagreement with, the sort of reforms that many private foundations are supporting.

But that view of L.A. Unified is changing under Cortines, Deasy said in an interview Tuesday.

Cortines, 77, is expected to retire within two years.

Efforts to link teacher evaluations to test scores — often coupled with discussions of limiting seniority protections — have met with opposition from United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union.

Deasy said no new system can be successful without teacher support: “Unless it’s owned deeply by the people closest to the youth, it’s not likely to stay.”

Deasy added that he played no role in the foundation’s decision to hire school board member Flores to head a nonprofit focused on teacher effectiveness. Flores revealed the new post this month, while announcing that she would not seek a second four-year term. During her final year in office, she will work part-time for the as-yet unnamed entity at a salary of $144,000.

From 2006 to 2008, Deasy was superintendent of Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, the nation’s 18th largest district with 134,000 students. Before that, he headed the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District for five years. Earlier in his career, he taught high school biology, chemistry, calculus and English and coached high school sports.

In Maryland, he collaborated with the teachers union to develop a pay-for-performance system that gradually went into use. In the Santa Monica district, one of his initiatives was to require schools in wealthy areas to share a percentage of their local fundraising with those in less prosperous neighborhoods.

Deasy declined to speculate on his future in the district, but that didn’t stop others, including Judith Perez, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles.

“It appears he is standing in the wings,” Perez said.