As the Board of Education mulls his fate, beleaguered Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy finds himself at the center of another dispute with his bosses, this time over his involvement in a lawsuit that criticizes district schools and policies.
Deasy's sworn declaration in the case places him at odds with members of the school board, which did not authorize his action.
The goal of the litigation is to compel the state to eliminate non-academic periods that have hindered students from fulfilling graduation and college requirements. Those periods include "service classes," which involve answering the phones and running errands, and "home periods," during which unsupervised students are allowed to leave campus.
"The 'classes' are not designed to deliver real instruction or learning opportunities to students, but rather are no more than fillers to plug gaps where no genuine courses are readily available," Deasy wrote. He asked the judge in the case to halt these "outrageous" practices at L.A. Unified and other districts. "I can't think of a better gift to give this school district than to expose this indefensible practice that is antithetical to learning."
In an interview with The Times on Monday, Deasy called his declaration a matter of conscience.
Although it is not unusual for superintendents to support student causes, Deasy has aligned himself with critics of the district he runs — on matters that he has the power to influence.
"I hope our superintendent would remedy untenable situations within his direct control immediately," said school board member Monica Ratliff.
A senior state official also questioned why Deasy didn't remedy the problem on his own campuses.
"It certainly is befuddling that he would encourage the state to fix a problem that is within his authority to fix," said Richard Zeiger, the state's chief deputy schools superintendent. "If he doesn't like these classes, he doesn't have to have them. He and the school board can work this out."
Deasy said he has tried in vain to eliminate useless class periods.
The issue has widened the gulf between some board members and Deasy, whose performance evaluation is scheduled for Oct. 21.
District test scores and graduation rates have improved, but Deasy has endured relentless criticism over a $1.3-billion technology program that originally was intended to provide an iPad to every student.
The superintendent has talked of possibly leaving the job; a majority of board members voted in closed session last week to begin negotiations over a possible departure agreement.
An ongoing point of dispute is whether Deasy follows the direction of the board — an issue that also came up this year in a lawsuit over teacher job protections. Deasy became a star witness in that litigation, which eventually overturned laws that made it more difficult to fire teachers. Deasy never sought board guidance or assent for his participation. He characterized his involvement as fighting on behalf of student civil rights.
The lawsuit Deasy lent his support to last week does not target L.A. Unified, but cites its schools as examples of the harm students suffer. Jefferson High, south of downtown, is "the most extreme example" of mismanagement, according to Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney for Public Counsel, which brought the suit along with the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and the firm Carlton Fields Jorden Burt.
The opening of the academic year was chaotic at Jefferson, with hundreds of students spending much of the first two weeks in the gym. Honors students couldn't get college preparation classes. Students behind in credits couldn't get courses to catch up. Others were sent off campus for "home periods" without the permission of parents, according to students and staff. Nearly two months into the academic year, schedules still were being shifted.
Deasy initially downplayed the difficulties, but soon assembled a senior team to fix a malfunctioning student records system that was the major cause of the problem.
About two years ago, Deasy said, he tried to limit non-academic periods through a new policy. He said it proved unenforceable because the teachers' contract allows faculties to determine a campus schedule. He added that the teachers union has resisted resolving the problem in contract negotiations.
"That's a fabrication," said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the teachers union, which supports the goals of the lawsuit.
Caputo-Pearl said teachers can vote on the number of periods in a day and the time of the nutrition break, but it's up to the administration to schedule the number and type of classes.
Some senior school district officials faulted Deasy's action even though they agreed on the importance of providing students with the courses and instructional time they need.
"He's entitled to his opinions," said school board member George McKenna. "But if he testifies and it doesn't represent the board, it would be a concern. Any superintendent should be working on behalf of the district and be working at the direction of the board."
McKenna, a former principal, said that in certain situations, for example, a student who works in the school's office can learn responsibility and skills that could help land a job. Deasy's declaration lacked that nuance, McKenna said.