Column: Austin Beutner’s first homework assignment: Study this advice, many difficult tests to follow

Austin Beutner in 2011.
Austin Beutner in 2011.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Ever since he fractured his neck in a bicycle accident in 2007, Austin Beutner has had a burning desire to fix things that are broken.

His first project was L.A. City Hall, where he worked as a deputy mayor. But his sharp elbows and blunt style were not enough to buckle the entrenched bureaucracy.

He quit after a little more than a year, ran for mayor and blasted “the barnyard called City Hall.” But he got no traction and bowed out of the race.


Beutner’s next big project was to rebuild the L.A. Times, but once again, his strategy and ambition irritated the corporate gorillas and they fired him after about a year on the job.

None of this means Beutner was the wrong choice Tuesday when the L.A. Unified school board named him the new superintendent. We won’t know that for quite a while. But what ails L.A. Unified is going to take more than a year to fix, and the district is in desperate need of a steady hand rather than an interloper.

Some argued that the district should go with an insider or at least someone with education experience, but Beutner replaces a career insider — Michelle King — who certainly didn’t have all the answers.

Some argued that the district had to have an outsider, but a former naval officer — David Brewer — was lost at sea as LAUSD superintendent.

I think it’s more about smarts, a coherent agenda and the political skills to carry it out. And about knowing what not to do.

Don’t be so cocksure of yourself that you alienate potential allies and go down in flames, like former Supt. John Deasy did.

Don’t think you know something about education when people who have devoted their lives to it are still trying to develop better curriculum and teaching methods.

Seems to me that Beutner, who made a fortune as a hedge fund guy, should surround himself with the best minds in education, particularly those with experience in the specific challenges of low-income students with issues. Meanwhile, he can focus more on straightening out the district’s financial mess.

By now, the challenges are clear to everyone.

Falling enrollment, rising pension and healthcare costs, academic struggles, billions in deferred building maintenance at hundreds of schools, political division on the board and an ongoing philosophical difference between charter school supporters and those who believe they are draining traditional schools staffed by union teachers.

Beutner hasn’t taken a firm position on charters but is seen by their backers as an ally and longtime cohort of philanthropist Eli Broad, one of the biggest supporters of charter schools and of school board candidates who currently hold a majority. That majority could shift because board member Ref Rodriguez faces three felony charges of political money laundering.

All of which raises the question:

What was Beutner thinking?

He now has one of the toughest and most important jobs in the nation — tougher, arguably, than fixing City Hall or coming up with a workable business model for the troubled newspaper industry. If he succeeds, the whole region benefits in countless ways.

Beutner is a smart guy, with strong opinions about things, but I don’t know if the motivation was supreme confidence in himself, a genuine interest in public service or a combination of the two. But he now owes it to 600,000 or so kids to move forward with them rather than to walk away a year or so from now, blaming any failures on entrenched problems at another barnyard of a public institution.

Like I’ve said before, for all its problems, LAUSD has thousands of great teachers and smart kids who pull off small miracles every day, and one goal should be to build on that.

But rather than ramble, I checked in with a few people and asked their advice for Beutner, so let me turn things over to them.

“He should spend the next few months listening to small groups of students, parents, community leaders, teachers, principals, and other staff about their hopes and concerns for the district,” said UCLA education professor John Rogers.

“He needs to understand how people are experiencing life in Los Angeles schools and he needs to establish a modicum of trust.… He should be prepared to talk about why someone with a background in business is the appropriate choice to lead the nation’s second-largest school system.”

I first met Miriam Antonio when she attended an LAUSD school board candidate forum as a student at Fairfax High School. She’s now studying at USC and had this advice for Beutner:

“It should be a requirement that all new LAUSD superintendents begin by visiting the most underperforming schools … and talking to students” about their urgent needs, Antonio said.

In her opinion, Beutner should focus on closing achievement gaps and hiring quality counselors, teachers and principals, so the district will produce more college- and career-ready graduates.

Charlie Unkeless, a retired teacher, recalled former superintendents Ray Cortines and John Deasy when I asked his advice for Beutner.

“I remember ... Cortines walking into my computer classroom the year before … Deasy took over. I was teaching flight simulation and aeronautics and when I saw him walk in, I knew immediately who he was but I teased him by asking if his child was in my class. He identified himself and I shook his hand,” said Unkeless.

“What impressed me was his willingness to listen and find out what I was doing. The kids were really focused on their flight simulation and paid us no attention, so it was a beautiful moment where he could see the concentration on their faces and the rigor of their tasks pretty quickly.”

I met Unkeless in that same classroom, at Burroughs Middle School, where he was using a slinky and a pound of spaghetti in a lesson about the seismic waves of earthquakes. He loved his job but retired soon after I wrote about him, demoralized by overcrowded classrooms, batteries of standardized testing, and funding problems that forced him to dig into his own pockets more and more to cover the cost of basic supplies.

In a letter to the school board last month, student members of United Way’s Young Civic Leaders Program offered their input on what they wanted in a new superintendent.

“We are the individuals most impacted by the district’s policies and choices in leadership. We hope this letter will compel the board to choose a superintendent that is bold, creative, resilient, and equity-driven,” they wrote.

The students credited the district for its achievements but implored leaders to work harder to close achievement gaps and prepare more students for college.

“We hope that you choose a leader that can join with us, our parents, our teachers, and our principals to make brave decisions in supporting all, not just some of us!”

Good luck to the new schools superintendent, and if he’d like to meet the students who wrote the letter, here’s where he can find them:

Hamilton High School: Polette Garrido, Zeyna Faucette and Joe Angle.

Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts: Sharon Sandoval, Alejandro Salas, Angelina Sam, Josue Gomez, Julia Sarieva and Axel Hernandez.

Orthopaedic Hospital Medical Magnet High School: Yecenia Perez, Reynaldo Vargas and Cyntia Escalante.

Manual Arts High School: Isaac Pichardo and Carlos Rodriguez.

Esteban Torres High School: Diana Renoj, Christopher Mejia and Marisa Parisi.

Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools: Michael Joseph Buenagua, Sharrel Narsico, Mariel Mendoza, Joshu Valdivieso and Fabio Garcia.

L.A. Center for Enriched Studies: Lila O’Connell, Raven Lawson and Lydia Tucker.

Camino Nuevo High School Miramar: Eimmy Sanchez.

Downtown Magnets High School: Marie Mendoza.

Academic Learning/Miguel Contreras Learning Complex: Christopher Pena.

Carson High School: Lizbeth Estrada.

Alliance Environmental Science and Tech High School: Ivan Serna.

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez