L.A. Unified leaders don’t make the grade

L.A. Unified board President Richard Vladovic confers with Supt. John Deasy last month. Deasy reportedly threatened to quit if Vladovic got the top job.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The nation’s second-largest public school district is dealing with a few disciplinary problems of late, but it’s not the students I’m talking about.

It’s the grown-ups.

Members of the L.A. Unified administration think new school board President Richard Vladovic is a big bully, and in fact Vladovic has been under internal review for possible verbally abusive behavior. Supt. John Deasy had reportedly threatened to take his ball and leave the playground if Vladovic got the top job on the board but then changed his mind when it happened.

Some school board members, meanwhile, would have you believe it’s Deasy who’s the bully, charging around full speed all the time and flipping out when he doesn’t get his way. Then last week, Deasy’s right-hand man, Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino, had me reaching for a violin when he said he’d just left a tearful meeting and had no choice but to quit because he can’t handle the board’s interference and paralysis.


“My heart is completely broken,” Aquino told the Daily News.

His heart’s broken? Stand in line, pal.

How about the hearts of L.A. Unified parents — myself included — who naively want to believe this district might one day put the interests of 600,000-plus children ahead of inflexible agendas, political feuds and petty grievances?

The teachers union leadership doesn’t like too much testing or evaluations or charter schools, and it never met a reform it couldn’t gleefully torpedo.

The newly formed school board, still working on its chemistry, is neither leading nor getting out of the way.

And Deasy, a man of many strengths, is pulling a D-minus in the political skills needed to cultivate relationships with foes and win their support for his agenda.

Next time someone says it’s time to blow up the beast and create smaller, more accountable districts, I’m not going to be as dismissive as I’ve been in the past. Given recent developments, you have to wonder if L.A. Unified is too big and too splintered into special-interest fiefdoms to ever succeed.

As for Aquino, he’s the guy Deasy had hand-picked for two critical jobs — tech acquisition and the switch to the new Common Core curriculum. In midstream, Aquino decides he can’t take it, and Deasy doesn’t have the clout or inclination to change the man’s mind?

Don’t leave yet, Jaime. I haven’t had time to figure out why there was such a rush to spend millions on iPads, in particular (for which Deasy made a pitch in an Apple commercial), and commit to software from Pearson (a company owned by Aquino’s former employer) before the software was fully developed and tested.

And there are still those nagging questions about whether it was OK to use bond money for computers and/or the software that makes them run, as well as whether those computers can be taken home by students. Not to mention another little hiccup:

On top of $500 million for iPads, and another $500 million to build Wi-Fi into the schools, are students supposed to take tests and write reports on touch screens? And if not, where’s the extra $38 million for external keyboards supposed to come from, and when all is said and done, do tablets make more sense than laptops?

I’m no Luddite. Maybe tablets will make terrific learning tools one day, although the jury is out, and maybe they’ll be great equalizers for students whose families can’t afford them, as Deasy has argued. And I like that the superintendent knows what he wants and can’t wait to get started. Sometimes, though, it’s OK to slow down and do a better job of explaining an agenda rather than imposing it.

As for the school board, someone needs to remind Vladovic that, no matter how badly he’d like to wake up one morning and discover he really is superintendent, his title is still board member.

Not that I don’t appreciate attempts to vet and challenge rather than rubber-stamp administration initiatives, but test scores and graduation rates have improved under Deasy. And in the midst of a switch to a new curriculum, we don’t need teacher training delayed by months because board members are in a contest to see who can be the biggest windbag and sabotage an agreement on how to best get the job done.

Why is it that once people enter the education industrial complex, they forget why they were on that path to begin with, and lose the ability to relate to parents and other laypeople who don’t speak their strange language?

I tuned into Tuesday’s L.A. Unified board meeting and was treated to a discussion of LCAP and LCFF, and if you haven’t heard, let me be the first to tell you that the district got a waiver for CORE on NCLB. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the words “categorical funding,” “Race To The Top” or “No Child Left Behind,” I need aspirin.

Whatever the decade, whatever the fad and whatever the location, all that really matters is good teaching, good training that makes for even better teaching, and adequate resources for principals and support staff.

If only school board members, superintendents and union officials could get out of the way more often and let it happen.

Twitter: @LATstevelopez