Advertisement
Share

LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner to step down when his contract is up June 30

First-graders greet L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner this week.
L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner reads a welcome card with Principal Christopher Clarke during a visit Tuesday to Canterbury Avenue Elementary School.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner, who has guided the nation’s second-largest school district through a tumultuous year of coronavirus-forced campus closures and a disruptive teachers strike, will step down as the district’s leader.

Beutner announced his decision in a letter Wednesday to the Board of Education.

“As the son of a public-school teacher and the product of a great public education, it has been an honor to serve as Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified for the past three years. It is the most rewarding job I’ve held during my nearly 40-year career,” Beutner said in the letter.

“I believe that it is fitting that a new superintendent should have the privilege of welcoming students back to school in the fall. I respectfully request that my contract end as planned on June 30,” he said. “In the meantime, I will remain focused on the task of ensuring that schools reopen in the safest way possible while helping in a seamless leadership transition.”

Advertisement

In recent weeks, with the end of his contract looming, there’s been internal discussion about a brief or long-term extension. The superintendent’s evaluation was among the topics listed for a closed session of the school board that began about 9 a.m. Wednesday and continued into the afternoon.

Shortly after the meeting, the board issued a statement thanking Beutner for three years of “dedicated service.”

Canterbury Avenue Elementary Principal Christopher Clarke extends his arm to take LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner's temperature.
LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner, right, gets his temperature taken by Principal Christopher Clarke during a visit to Canterbury Avenue Elementary School.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

There is no immediate indication that Beutner was asked to leave, and the board, in its official statement, praised his “unwavering leadership” and said it was “disappointed” that Beutner would not serve past June 30. All the same, board members gave no indication that they had offered him a new contract or that they had tried to persuade him to stay on.

The school board appeared to have fallen behind in its handling of his contract — especially given that a superintendent search can take a year or more and Beutner is scheduled to leave in just over two months. In an interview, Beutner said he’d willingly postponed discussions over his contract to focus on reopening campuses safely and on academic priorities during the pandemic.

Beutner’s sudden departure announcement comes in the midst of campus reopenings and his involvement in the hiring of a new general counsel. L.A. Unified also is preparing a ramped-up summer school and for an anticipated return to full-time, in-person schooling in the fall, as well as a long-term academic recovery plan.

Beutner said a departure at the end of June would offer a clean break and allow a new leader to usher in the new school year. He also endorsed finding a successor from within the ranks of the current administrative team.

Advertisement

“I hope the district can find that leader to provide continuity because we’re making progress,” he said. “Continuity of leadership should be broadly defined as a team of people and a set of things they’re pursuing.”

In its statement, the board pledged a “robust and equitable search.”

Beutner, 61, offered few details about why he was unwilling to continue, but he suggested that the past three years had taken a toll.

“Seven days a week, 15 hours a day — I don’t know how to do any job other than 100%. And there is so much work to do with the kids counting on us. But the school district needs someone who can continue to do that,” Beutner said. “Three years as superintendent of Los Angeles Unified is — I don’t know — 30 in dog years? It’s an extraordinarily rewarding job and an extraordinarily taxing job.”

Advertisement

Beutner’s letter to the board presents a long list of what he considers notable accomplishments. Chief among them has been managing the school district through the pandemic while launching several bold initiatives.

These have included a meal program that invited all in the community who needed food to come to school sites for assistance, almost certainly distributing far more meals than any other education-related entity in the country. He also developed a nation-leading school district coronavirus testing program. Some of these efforts have involved financially risky elements, including the costs the district bore to feed the needy with no guarantee of reimbursement from the government. Beutner, who exercised vast authority under emergency powers granted by the board, said such aggressiveness was necessary to the moment.

“What he did in the last year, providing food to the kids and the parents showed leadership,” said Antonia Hernandez, president and CEO of the California Community Foundation, a local nonprofit. “He found a way to work with the board, and the union, and brought us, even in these turbulent times, a sense of stability and continuity of leadership.”

Advertisement

Maria Brenes, executive director of the Eastside advocacy group InnerCity Struggle, had similar praise, while also talking of unfinished business.

“There were areas where he leaned in where he was needed,” Brenes said. “But in terms of equity and closing [achievement] gaps, we haven’t moved the needle under the superintendent or before that, as much as it needs to move.”

The superintendent’s legacy on academic matters will be difficult to assess. Such efforts were waylaid by a series of crises, but he prioritized a focus on early literacy and Black academic achievement, devoting more resources and attention in these areas.

Beutner said that efforts — such as providing an additional teacher in classes to focus on reading — have already helped students and now need to be brought to scale.

Advertisement

A successful businessman who founded a nonprofit that worked with schools, Beutner had no direct experience managing a school or school district. The Board of Education divided narrowly over his hiring in 2018. The unofficial, closed-door, straw vote was 4 to 3, which meant that Beutner’s selection hinged on the vote of Ref Rodriguez, who was facing charges on campaign-finance violations and managed to stay in office just long enough to provide a swing vote.

Then Beutner was immediately confronted with the run-up to a six-day, once-in-a-generation teachers strike that no force was likely to prevent, and during which he was sometimes vilified as an unfeeling, corporate-style reformer, a characterization that deeply offended him. The strike resulted in an agreement with gradual class-size reductions and such commitments as providing a nurse in every school, which has not yet been achieved.

The teachers union declined to comment on Beutner’s tenure.

Advertisement

The strike was quickly followed by the election to the school board of union ally Jackie Goldberg — filling the open seat left by Rodriguez. To some observers, it looked as though the Beutner superintendency was in jeopardy.

During the pandemic, however, he generally worked in concert with labor groups, sometimes to the dismay of those critical of unions. This collaboration emphasized safety measures for students and employees while working to achieve more funding to confront the pandemic and to build up education improvement efforts.

“He came in with a bit of a lead foot,” said former school board member David Tokofsky, a consultant for the union that represents administrators. “But in the last 16 months the ambition of the man became connected to the ambition of the place, which is to improve the fate of Black, Brown and other disadvantaged students.”

Beutner managed to cobble together the board support he needed and developed a wary alliance of common interest with unions. In the process, however, he lost the enthusiasm of some original backers, including some supporters of charter schools.

Advertisement

Local 99 of Services Employees Union International — which represents most nonteaching employees — offered sturdy praise.

“We acknowledge his commitment to supporting student learning during the pandemic and recognizing the contributions of frontline workers who continued to serve our school communities in this crisis,” said Local 99 Executive Director Max Arias. “Throughout his tenure, we have appreciated his understanding of the role that custodians, food service workers, bus drivers and other classified school employees play in student learning.”

The advocacy group Parent Revolution was critical of his term. The group has supported a lawsuit alleging that the district’s remote learning plan has provided too little in the way of both live online instruction and total instruction.

“After a year where many families were left on their own to figure it out, radical change in decision making is needed,” said Janel Artis-Wright, the group’s executive director. “We can no longer accept decisions being made behind closed doors about our babies without our consent.” She said that the low numbers of students returning for on-campus instruction is “proof of broken trust between the district and community.”

Advertisement

Beutner’s previous stints of public service include relatively brief senior management roles with the city of Los Angeles. He also served for about a year as publisher of the L.A. Times.

Times staff writer Paloma Esquivel contributed to this report.


Advertisement