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Ramon Cortines leaves his mark on L.A. Unified

Ramon C. Cortines returned as head of the nation's second-largest school system three years ago to complete unfinished business, namely, to transform education in Los Angeles. He left this week at the age of 78, after dealing with the worst budget crisis in memory and constant political pressures from an aggressive mayor and other powerful, often conflicting forces.

The superintendent's supporters and critics agree that Cortines, known for an innate stubbornness and self-confident pride, managed these and other pressures by adjusting, creating results that he felt would benefit students and that would match his own goals for the school system.

"I have never felt completely hijacked on any of the issues," Cortines said in an interview. "And I have pushed back on some."

The financial duress — caused by an economic recession and declining enrollment — allowed him, ironically, to push forward with some of his plans: He succeeded in shrinking the central bureaucracy through layoffs and gave schools more control over their spending. In other areas, he tried to tread water, keeping campuses cleaned and maintained at a sharply reduced cost, for example.

He took on a succession of controversial initiatives. He allowed more charter schools to move on to traditional school campuses. He also replaced administrators at some schools that failed to show rapid improvement and he required staffs at several other campuses to re-interview for their jobs, which infuriated the teachers union.

And he carried out the landmark "Public School Choice" resolution, which allowed groups inside and outside the district to bid for control over new schools as well as the lowest-achieving ones. It was proposed by board member Yolie Flores and backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who called it "the most far-reaching thing this district has done."

Its development epitomized the Cortines era. The idea that professional educators could not be trusted to run district schools was offensive to Cortines, but he put those feelings aside.

"I sat down with my staff," said Cortines, "and I said to them: 'How can we make this work.' " He added: "I made it work. I moved it from a resolution that I felt was somewhat flawed to be an effective tool."

In the most recent round in March, Cortines recommended which outside groups should take control of 10 new campuses and three long-struggling ones. But the mayor's allies on the Board of Education overruled several key recommendations, preferring to give more campuses to independently operated, mostly nonunion charter schools. They also wanted to force teachers at more schools to re-interview for their jobs.

Cortines' critics, including mayoral ally Ben Austin, who runs a lobbying and parent-organizing group, describe Cortines as a talented, honorable gradualist in an era calling for revolution.

The "20th century" approach of Cortines "is to put the right people in the right positions of power to make the right decisions," said Austin. "He was comfortable only as long as he and the school board remained in complete control. Ultimately he could only stretch so far."

Austin, with the mayor's support, had lobbied Cortines to allow parents the right to instigate wholesale changes at a school, saying that parents could be better trusted than officials to look out for students.

Cortines resisted, disagreeing with the details but not the concept. Austin's "parent trigger" later became state law.

A Texas native who grew up in San Francisco with adoptive parents, Cortines worked his way up from classroom teacher to the only individual to head school districts in Los Angeles and New York City, the nation's two largest school systems. He nursed Pasadena Unified through integration and San Jose Unified through bankruptcy.

A demanding boss who never mastered a computer, his impatience was tempered by his charm and sincerity.

A tanned, trim exercise fanatic known to arrive at work before dawn, he abandoned retirement several times, including before and after serving in New York City, where he was famously at odds with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

During his prior stint in Los Angeles, in 2000, he came in as the school board was forcing out incumbent Ruben Zacarias. Cortines vowed to remain only long enough to assist with a tense transition. In six months, he installed the Open Court phonics-based reading program district-wide, fought off attempts to break up the school system and selected a management team.

That school board begged him — futilely — to stay on.

While supportive of new Supt. John Deasy, current board member Steve Zimmer — who is not part of the mayor's bloc — said he wishes Cortines would have stayed longer.

"We had simply the most skilled, most accomplished superintendent in the nation at the magical moment of his last job," Zimmer said. "He did this work completely unfettered, unchained. There was no objective other than what was best for children. He absolutely held the district together, understanding exactly where the organization was, where it needed to be and how much change it could absorb."

Cortines was working as chief education adviser and deputy mayor to Villaraigosa when Cortines agreed to return to L.A. Unified as deputy superintendent in April 2008. The move was seen as enhancing the mayor's influence in L.A. Unified, although the rapport between the two men was cooling.

Cortines' initial role was to run all day-to-day operations under then-Supt. David Brewer. The school board soon decided that it wanted Cortines for the top job.

Senior district administrator George McKenna said of Cortines: "He knows exactly what he thinks a school should look like, and he's not afraid to say it."

Education historian Diane Ravitch, who worked with Cortines in New York, puts him in the "tradition of educator-superintendents who see their job as supporting and improving public schools, quietly, without fanfare or self-glorification." In contrast, "the new breed," she said, "arrives in town with a large megaphone…launching top-down reforms that alienate those who must implement them."

Even as L.A. Unified critics wanted to blow up what they term the "status quo," Cortines took pride in working forcefully within established rules.

Cortines stood firm when the teachers union launched a boycott of district tests that are given periodically to measure progress. That dispute seems quaint compared to issues that teachers would later confront.

Officials soon pressed to speed up the process for firing teachers accused of misconduct and to link instructors' evaluations to their students' test scores.

In the Cortines era, union influence has waned, dangerously so in the view of union supporters, and yet he has retained respect among some union leaders who see him as staving off worse developments. And they believe him when he effusively praises classroom teachers and other workers or lauds the willingness of unions to make salary concessions in tough budget times.

"What makes Cortines a unique bureaucrat," said teachers union President A.J. Duffy, "is that he is first, last and always a classroom teacher."

howard.blume@latimes.com

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