Austin Beutner has emerged as a leading contender to run the Los Angeles school district, with backers saying he is smart enough and tough enough to confront its financial and academic struggles.
Though he does not have a background in education, the former investment banker has in the last year examined some of the district’s intractable problems, serving as co-chair of an outside task force with the support of then-Supt. Michelle King.
Sources inside and outside the school district said Beutner appears to have more support on the seven-member board than other finalists, and his name could come up for a vote as early as Tuesday.
But with the choice looming, board members last week received documents from the district’s general counsel David Holmquist, notifying them that the charity Beutner founded, Vision to Learn, could lose its contract with the L.A. Unified School District. The nonprofit, according to the documents, has fallen far short in its commitment to provide vision screenings and glasses to thousands of low-income students this school year.
The Times was alerted to the Vision to Learn documents by sources who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter. The leaks appear to represent a last-gasp effort to thwart Beutner’s appointment, reflecting some insiders’ concerns about his qualifications and about the direction in which he might take L.A. Unified.
Reached Monday, Beutner declined to comment on the superintendent search and referred questions about the nonprofit to its administrative staff, which is in charge of day-to-day operations. Vision to Learn quickly challenged the accuracy of the district findings, saying it has served more students than recorded in district tallies and that the school system caused early delays.
The school board received documents about that contract as Beutner, a former Los Angeles Times publisher, appeared to emerge as one of four finalists for the job of superintendent. He is scheduled to be interviewed a second time on Tuesday, sources said.
Interim Supt. Vivian Ekchian, who has been managing the district since King left on medical leave last fall, also made it to the second round, according to insiders. The other two apparent finalists are more difficult to confirm, but several sources have named Indianapolis Supt. Lewis Ferebee and former Baltimore Supt. Andres Alonso, who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
The nation’s second-largest school district faces long-term budget problems because of rising pension costs, vastly underfunded retiree health benefits and declining enrollment. Despite incremental progress, most district students perform below the California average on state test scores, a challenge L.A. Unified has in common with other large urban school systems.
Politically, L.A. Unified is governed by an elected board split by ideological differences and sometimes pulled in conflicting directions by influential outside groups. The most prominent combatants are the teachers union and charter-school supporters, who typically back opposing slates for the school board. Charter schools, which are independently operated, are a major factor in the steep enrollment drop at many district-operated schools. Most charters are non-union.
In recent months, the task force Beutner has helped lead has delivered numerous proposals about how to improve the district. It has looked at student attendance, real estate holdings and oversight of district operations.
It’s far from clear whether the information regarding Vision to Learn has eroded Beutner’s support on the board.
A key document among those delivered to board members was a letter from the district to Vision to Learn dated April 11, stating that the nonprofit had provided exams and glasses for only about 5% of this school year’s target of 30,000 students.
Unless a plan is put in place to correct the problem by early May, “LAUSD may terminate the agreement for default,” wrote Bruce Trenbeth, contract administration manager for L.A. Unified.
Vision to Learn’s executive director, Ann Hollister, said L.A. Unified’s numbers are out of date. The district, she said, seems to be counting only the students for whom the nonprofit has so far been paid. The actual number of students screened, she said, is about 55% of the target, while about 18% received eye exams and 15% received glasses.
“We have an electronic medical record for every child we examined and screened,” Hollister said.
But even the nonprofit’s figures put Vision to Learn well behind its projected schedule, with less than two months left in the school year.
The district’s letter to Vision to Learn said “numerous schools (with returned consent forms) dating as far back as Fall 2017 [requesting] services have not been contacted, had their calls returned, or been scheduled for a visit,” and that “because of VTL’s delays in scheduling, students who have failed the vision screening and will be matriculating to another school ... may not receive exams or glasses.”
District staff, to document the issues, assembled about 100 pages of email threads from schools having problems with the screening effort.
Hollister responded that the school district mainly is responsible for delays and other issues, and submitted a timeline and other records in support of her case.
“The frustration reflected” in the emails “seem to be efforts by school staff to understand a program the district has not properly informed them about,” Hollister wrote L.A. Unified officials in a letter dated April 16.
Beutner chairs the board of Vision to Learn, which provides eyeglasses to needy students in 10 states. L.A. Unified greatly expanded its connection with the nonprofit in May 2017, when the school board authorized the two-year contract.
Under the contract, the Los Angeles Clippers Foundation has agreed to provide half the funding for the effort. The other half — $3 million — is to be taxpayer-funded, from the district. Vision to Learn gets paid for services at a school after students there receive glasses.
Vision to Learn has been an integral part of credentials that backers assert make Beutner well equipped to lead L.A. Unified.
An investment banker, Beutner, 58, joined the public sector in 2010 as first deputy mayor under Antonio Villaraigosa, overseeing business and job development. He was part of the Villaraigosa administration for about a year, also filling in as interim director of the Department of Water and Power.
Beutner vied to become mayor in 2012 when Villaraigosa termed out, but his campaign never caught fire and he dropped out early.
In 2014 Beutner co-chaired the 2020 Commission, which made recommendations for the future of Los Angeles. He then became publisher and chief executive of The Times, but was fired after a year over disagreements about the newspaper’s direction.
Beutner’s backers, including some of the city’s power brokers, expect the core of his school board support to come from a four-member majority elected with major financial support from pro-charter donors.
Charter supporters consider him an ally, though as a member of the task force he has given no such indication.
A vote from outside the majority bloc would strengthen Beutner’s hold on the job — and would most likely come from Richard Vladovic, with whom he has had a long-standing cordial relationship. The retired school district administrator has avoided total allegiance to any faction.
A fifth vote would lessen the importance of Ref Rodriguez, who is part of the majority bloc but is under criminal indictment on charges of political money laundering. Rodriguez also faces separate conflict-of-interest allegations from the charter-school organization he co-founded and ran before being elected to the school board.
Although Rodriguez has denied any wrongdoing, his future on the board could prove tenuous.
Probable votes against Beutner would be George McKenna and Scott Schmerelson, retired school administrators and career educators thought to be most skeptical of a non-educator as schools chief.