Q&A: Talking schools with L.A. Unified’s new superintendent

Incoming L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner talks to students at Belmont High School as school board President Monica Garcia looks on.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Austin Beutner, who officially starts Tuesday as the new superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, is taking on a famously difficult job at a particularly difficult time. The school board is divided and did not back him unanimously. The nation’s second-largest school district has deep-seated problems, including declining enrollment, lagging academic achievement and rising pension and healthcare costs that eat away at its budget.

The 58-year-old former investment banker and former L.A. Times publisher has years of experience in the financial world but none as an educator. Earlier this week, he sat down with the Times education team to discuss the challenges facing the district, which has about 60,000 employees and 500,000 students in traditional public schools. He did not talk about his plans — saying repeatedly, “stay tuned” — but he spoke in broad terms about his mindset in approaching the tough decisions ahead.

“This is not an overnight exercise,” he said of his new job, “it won’t be easy.”

On balancing L.A. Unified’s potential budget crisis with teachers’ demands for higher pay

“I would posit a priori that education should be valued more highly, not just in our community but throughout the nation, whether it’s a teacher or someone who drives a bus and gets those kids to school, those are undervalued. That’s my value. Now, we have to balance that against our choices. … I do think our workforce needs to be treated fairly. They need to have career paths, they need to be trained, they need to feel good about the work they do and be valued for that, but we have to put those choices and those set of values on the table with other things the district also has to accommodate.”

On the need for more spending on public education

"According to the state of California, $15,000 is enough to educate a child. … I’m not sure there’s a scenario where $15,000 works in the long term. So within our planning horizon … we’re going to have to have a conversation with the community … about the case for why additional investments are needed. We’re also going to have to have a conversation amongst our community to say, ‘Should we be making a different set of choices, or what values do we hold most dear on the resources we do have’?”

On how much the growth of charter schools is to blame for declining enrollment

“I am not an ideologue, I don’t approach charters as the solution, I don’t approach it as the problem.”

“There is a decline in enrollment. There’s a decline in birth rate. That’s got nothing to do with charters. … Some people win the lottery and move their kids to San Marino, or they move to Jackson, Wyoming. … They can’t afford L.A., so they move to Lancaster. So some of the decline in enrollment is due to other factors.”

“Students or families who are making the choice to go to charter, my point is that’s not the main event. Not unimportant. I understand the issue, I understand how the differing camps have made it more of an issue. I’d like to just tone that down because I think we have more important or bigger issues that we have to, as a community, work on together.”

“Ought we be able to recognize the reality of a 500,000-student district and make it work? I think so. That’s where I start. I don’t start with 10 years of history of what it once was. And I think whatever modest changes are on the horizon aren’t going to change that reality.”

On the need for academic improvement in L.A. Unified:

“This is an organization that needs to change. … We can celebrate things that are happening, and progress has been made. More kids graduate high school in L.A. Unified than have in a long, long, long time, if not ever. That’s a good thing. We also have to be mindful and transparent and say the challenge still remains. How many of those who graduate are not proficient in math, are not proficient in English?”

On his personal wealth

“I’ve never disclosed my net worth, nor do I intend to.”

“I have a set of life experiences I bring to this job. … My dad came to this country as an immigrant, started with nothing, fleeing the Nazis. My mom taught public school. I worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant. I drove a delivery truck after school every day in high school. My journey is not so different than many in our community.”

“So, whether I’ve had good fortune in my life, or had less good fortune, is not really relevant to the job that I need to do. Can I be empathetic? Do I understand the journey of the families in the community? I think I do. Am I willing to do the hard work? Yes, I am. My net worth is not relevant, period.”

On how he thinks his job performance should be measured

“You’ll see plans in months not weeks, months not years. … Looking out a year, if our plans are well understood — we may be having disagreements with stakeholders, we may be trying to bring certain parts of the community along — but if we’re making progress towards making sure those plans are understood and we’re starting to implement parts of those plans, I’d consider that progress. … My planning horizon is 2021, not 2018-19.”

On the toughest part of his job interview

“The greatest concern I had and have today is do we share that same truth of where the district is, what the challenges are we face, what the opportunities are that we’re trying to address. You might see this selection as inside/outside, educator/non-educator, I see it sort of slightly different. Which is, this is an organization that needs to change. Not change for change’s sake, but change to deliver on the promise of inspiring and educating kids. So, if there was a place of, I don’t know, sharpest exchange or most engaged debate, it’d be on: ‘OK, what’s your theory of change? How much change needs to happen?’”

“Are we seeing the same truth? Are we starting in the same place? Do we define the mission of what we’re trying to get to similarly? … I’d say that’s still going to be the challenge.”