California

School board pressures Supt. Beutner for details of reform plans

LOS ANGELES, CA – May 2, 2018: New Los Angeles Unified School District leader Austin Beutner make
L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner pledged Tuesday to provide confidential reports from consultants hired to help shape his strategic plan.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner works for the Board of Education, but some board members say they need to know more about where he intends to take the nation’s second-largest school system.

Board member Scott Schmerelson put his concerns on the table at Tuesday’s meeting in a resolution that ultimately led the board to informally rebuke the schools chief for his lack of transparency.

Beutner took his medicine, pledging “100%” cooperation in providing the board with information in the future. He said Schmerelson could expect to see reports from district consultants paid to work on a reform effort within days.

In other action Tuesday, the board rejected a proposal to give schools full control over which teachers they hire. And a board majority chose to name a school after a veteran administrator whose long, meritorious service was marred by his role in allowing an employee accused of sexual misconduct to return to an L.A. Unified campus.

Schmerelson took Beutner to task for not providing the contracts and the work done by consultants who have been advising him on the plan he is developing to restructure the district.

Beutner has said that his overarching goal is to bring decision-making and resources closer to schools to better serve students and cut costs. But so far he has shied away publicly from specifics.

The Times in November obtained information that Beutner was considering a plan to divide the school system into about 32 networks of schools that would have substantial independence but that also would be held accountable for improving student achievement.

Beutner has been getting advice on his plan from an assortment of outside consultants paid by private donations managed by the California Community Foundation. Because of that arrangement, his staff initially did not provide The Times either the consultants’ contracts or the work they’ve produced.

Schmerelson first asked for that information in early October — and Beutner pledged at a Nov. 13 board meeting that he would provide the materials. But he did not follow through.

Ultimately, Schmerelson put a resolution on Tuesday’s agenda to require Beutner to supply the documents. On Thursday, the district gave more than 100 pages of contracts to board members and The Times.

These documents lay out proposals for an annual school rating system and for networks of schools that choose which services to purchase from the central office. They do not make clear to what extent the networks could go outside the district to shop for key services such as food, student transportation and hiring.

On Tuesday, Schmerelson thanked Beutner for providing the contracts but reiterated his demand to see the consultants’ work.

“The secrecy has got to stop,” Schmerelson said. “It’s an affront to me and to the constituents I represent.

“I remain incredulous,” he added, “that it took four months and a formal resolution to get you to disclose these documents.”

Schmerelson said it was important for the board and the public to know which reforms philanthropists think “should be driving this district.”

When Beutner, a successful businessman, took the job in May, both he and the board majority that hired him called transparency a top priority. (Schmerelson did not vote to give him the job, citing his lack of experience managing schools or school districts.)

Even Beutner’s allies on the board sided with Schmerelson at the meeting. Richard Vladovic said providing board members with information was a “sacred thing.” He and board President Monica Garcia spoke of how frustrated they got when previous administrations withheld information.

The board voted 5 to 1 in favor of Schmerelson’s resolution. Garcia voted no, suggesting that the tone was unnecessarily harsh: “I expect better of this body in the way it deals with its employee and I am accepting [of] the ability to learn.”

Beutner said that from the start, he and district employees have been developing his strategic plan, not the consultants.

Discussion of the matter took only about eight minutes. The teacher hiring debate took nearly two hours. The central question was whether principals or school hiring committees should have the right to reject teachers they don’t want to hire.

The current practice is that most schools have to be willing to take displaced teachers — permanent employees who need a place to work. The vast majority of these teachers have lost positions as a result of declining enrollment.

Under union and district rules, such teachers are entitled to jobs. When spots in schools can’t be found, they become expensive substitutes.

Some schools — including many low-achieving campuses — already can refuse teachers. Board member Nick Melvoin brought forward the motion to extend these rights districtwide. The final vote was 4 to 2 against it, with only Garcia joining him.

Melvoin had hoped for support from Vladovic, but Vladovic withdrew his co-sponsorship when Melvoin raised concerns about a motion Vladovic supported to name Avalon Continuation High School after retired administrator Dan Isaacs.

In a later interview, Melvoin said that the district had not properly obtained parent input. It held one meeting, but no parents showed up. Then, Melvoin said, somebody talked to parents who were dropping off students — and claimed five of seven supported honoring Isaacs, even though they were unlikely to have known who he was.

Melvoin said he was also bothered by an internal district report that years ago said Isaacs was partially responsible for letting a school employee who was removed from one campus for suspected sexual misconduct to return to work at another campus. The employee, Steve Rooney, later molested children at Markham Middle School in South L.A.

Melvoin said he did not mean to tarnish Isaacs’ reputation but that he needed more information. The case had special resonance for him because he started his teaching career at Markham the year after Rooney’s arrest.

Several speakers praised Isaacs’ integrity, intelligence and decades of service — including years as an assistant superintendent and district chief operating officer. The board voted 4 to 1 to rename the Wilmington school after him. Melvoin voted no, and Kelly Gonez abstained.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume