In John Deasy, the Los Angeles Board of Education selected a new superintendent who is seemingly a man of contradictions.
He was raised in a strong union household yet challenges work rules fiercely defended by unions. He supports making it easier to dismiss teachers but also insists that a school system cannot fire its way to success.
He’s going to be accused of being a tool of the Gates Foundation, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — he has associations with them all — but his career also encompasses a quirky independent streak.
The city’s new schools leader, announced Tuesday, is well known in education circles: He’s written and spoken widely, led three school districts in more than 12 years as a superintendent and worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He also completed an executive training program funded by Broad.
But nothing he’s done defines exactly how he will run the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest, which has been hammered by budget cuts, increasing class sizes and layoffs, and which remains beset by low student achievement and community schisms.
“I have to lead hope in the work force,” said Deasy, 50, in an interview. “We are in tough times and will go through even tougher times. And if we can’t treat each other everywhere in the district with dignity, we won’t see the dignity in our students.”
But harmony will not be the measuring stick. Student achievement will be.
He can earn a $10,000 annual bonus by achieving specific performance goals set out in his three-year contract. These are likely to sound modest to impatient critics, but no previous superintendent has achieved them, he said.
One annual goal: increasing the rate of students who graduate from high school within four years by 6 percentage points; another: raising the number of ninth graders who test as proficient in algebra by 4 percentage points.
His contract calls for a salary of $330,000 per year, $80,000 more than New York City schools chancellor Cathie Black and more than virtually any other public official in Los Angeles. The contract was approved as expected in a closed-door meeting on a 6-0 vote. Steve Zimmer abstained because no other candidates were considered for the job.
Deasy has no buyout clause; the board — or a future board with a different majority — can end the agreement with 30 days’ notice. Elections for four board seats take place in March, a month before Deasy takes over.
“It is a risk,” Deasy said, “but I don’t believe the risk outweighs the importance of doing this work. I’ll endeavor to work with any board.”
In previous jobs, Deasy has always pursued measures widely regarded as being on the leading edge of reform. Some of these have subsequently fallen out of favor.
He was among the first to break up large campuses into smaller academies, an effort that won funding from the Gates Foundation when he headed the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District from 2001 to 2006.
Deasy also was ahead of the curve in focusing on the use of data in instruction, working directly with teachers and principals in that district of 11,700 students, a luxury he won’t have in the massive L.A. system of 671,000 students. Deasy later began widespread changes in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, a system of 127,000 students, but he left after 2 1/2 years, before his initiatives fully took hold, to join the Gates Foundation. (He also ran a school district in Rhode Island for about five years.)
In his five months in L.A. Unified, as the top deputy to retiring Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, Deasy took charge of revamping teacher evaluations, an area of concentration with Gates and in previous school posts. He supports the use of student test score data as part of a teacher’s performance review. The union vigorously opposes it.
His goals include greater transparency and giving meaningful voice to students and parents, yet some in Santa Monica-Malibu criticized him for allowing settlement agreements that prohibited parents from speaking publicly about services to their disabled children. Deasy now says that policy was wrong.
Another stumble concerned his professional relationship with an academic mentor, whose later disgrace had the potential to pull down Deasy with him.
Robert Felner, Deasy’s former mentor and dissertation adviser, last year pleaded guilty to federal charges of income tax evasion and defrauding two universities of $2.3 million, resulting in a 63-month prison sentence.
Deasy had followed Felner as a doctoral student from the University of Rhode Island to the University of Louisville in Kentucky, where he granted Deasy a waiver that allowed him to complete his doctorate after only one semester at Louisville. Deasy had completed the rest of his coursework elsewhere and submitted a 178-page dissertation.
A university investigation upheld the doctorate.
While a doctoral student and superintendent in Santa Monica-Malibu, Deasy hired a research center run by Felner to conduct student, parent and teacher surveys for $375,000 over three years. Deasy said he recommended Felner for the job but insisted that district contract rules were followed.
The issue, said current and former Santa Monica-Malibu board members, shouldn’t tarnish Deasy’s overall record. Deasy poured resources into programs to benefit low-income and low-achieving minority students.
Deasy also pushed to open a charter school and link teacher evaluations in part to student test scores, said Shane McLoud, a former board member.
But Deasy backed down quietly and pursued other moves when he couldn’t get a board majority to risk upsetting employee unions, said McLoud.
In Maryland, Deasy finally won union agreement over a trial plan that links student test scores to teacher evaluations, as one way for instructors to win salary bonuses. He predicted that common ground can be found in Los Angeles too.
After the noon announcement, the first person to shake Deasy’s hand — and then hug him — was Villaraigosa, who is in a political war with the teachers union. He’d quietly pushed for Deasy’s hire.
The incoming superintendent also bravely tried several minutes of Spanish; 74% of the school system’s students are Latino.
Staggering challenges lie ahead, and Deasy said he’ll need to move fast but not alone.
“The question becomes: Will I be confrontational or compelling?” he said. “I fall along the lines of compelling others to be bold with me.”
Times staff writer Jason Song contributed to this report.