It would be a great loss to the students of Los Angeles Unified School District if Supt. John Deasy left his job or were fired, especially if the enormous and welcome sense of urgency he brings to education left with him. Deasy's leadership over the last 3 1/2 years has led to higher student test scores and graduation rates, as well as to improved results for students learning English, among other accomplishments.
That's why it is such a shame that relations between Deasy and the school board have been so difficult for so long. A year ago, the embattled superintendent survived a period of turmoil during which he threatened to quit and critics pushed the board to fire him. Now, after months of simmering tension, the superintendent is embattled again and the board has instructed staff to draw up a termination agreement, should this turn out to be the end of the line.
If this were just a question of whether the board should fire Deasy, the answer would be simple: Of course it shouldn't.
But the real question is a more complicated one: whether Deasy and his elected bosses on the board can figure out a mutually productive working relationship. The board majority wants a superintendent who will pay attention to its concerns and show less of a stubborn, independent streak. But Deasy is a doer; he wants a board that will show more support for his ideas and approve them more readily. He has trouble with challenges to his initiatives, and there are many times when he is right that the board is meddling unnecessarily. Too often the board discussions seem designed to frustrate Deasy rather than to help him do a more effective job.
But not always. The truth is that Deasy, for all his skills, hasn't been politically agile enough to forge relationships on the board that give him the goodwill he needs to carry out his agenda.
If Deasy had managed his employers — and his most important employees, the teachers — better, the badly fumbled plan to purchase an iPad for every student would not have led to a battle cry for his ouster. It would be seen as one bad misstep, but not as important as the primary mission of keeping students in school and helping them to graduate with solid academic skills.
There are certain things Deasy may never achieve, no matter how politically adept he becomes. He can't turn United Teachers Los Angeles into a reliable teammate. The union has a reputation even among teachers unions for being intransigent and stuck in the past. It's going to doggedly support every teacher tenure protection, no matter how much out of line it is with national norms or rational thinking. Unions exist to protect teachers, and when the interests of teachers (or of the union itself) work against the best interests of students, Deasy is right to fight back.
But not all of the outcry from teachers comes from bad apples and union activists. In recent years, teachers have been put on furlough, have been ordered to serve breakfast in their classrooms, and have watched Deasy argue against their much-beloved tenure protections and in favor of including student test scores in their evaluations. Rightly or wrongly, many good and dedicated teachers feel that their opinions don't count and that they and their profession are being blamed for all that goes wrong in education.
Apart from the teaching staff, Deasy probably can't become best buddies with the union's staunchest ally on the board, Bennett Kayser. Another board member, Monica Ratliff, has been showing an unsettling tendency to micromanage the district and its chief executive.
But on the seven-member board, Deasy has two reliable allies: Monica Garcia and Tamar Galatzan. At least two more, Steve Zimmer and board President Richard Vladovic, are independent thinkers who could be persuaded to support him more often. New board member George McKenna is less of a known quantity; so far, he seems inclined to ask the superintendent questions, but is satisfied when he gets a good answer.
Four seats are up for election in the spring, providing possibilities for building new alliances.
It is certainly true that the board has failed to give Deasy enough credit for his key role. Deasy's passion for serving disadvantaged students of color, and his ability to act on that passion, are the most important measures of his value. L.A. Unified's students are doing better on a wide range of measurements. At pilot schools, where teachers vote to create some of their own work rules, teachers have been able to make a bigger difference in students' lives. Schools are safer. Parents are more involved. Good charter schools have been encouraged, and for those who think Deasy is an unchecked privatizer of public schools, it's worth noting that among the last several superintendents, he has fought the hardest to shut underperforming charter schools. And he has usually won.
Now, he should pay equal attention to the job of communicating with the board and building a steadier core of support there. If he can't do that, he will not be a successful, effective superintendent over the long run. It is the board's responsibility to oversee the district, and frankly, that's a good thing. Had the board asked more questions about the iPad contract to start with (and a lot fewer about the very small contracts that individual schools would like to forge with vendors), the district would be much better off today. But the board is worse at picking its battles than Deasy is.
The board probably won't fire Deasy. But it could nag and nitpick him into leaving. That would be a grave mistake. Yet Deasy will have to come to peace with the idea that he is the board's employee. He must build alliances and persuade board members rather than treat questions as a nuisance. And he should stop threatening to leave. Not only does this throw the district into a tizzy, but he loses support from a public that grows weary of the melodrama. Deasy and the board should start by forging a set of common goals for the next year; surely they share hopes of good outcomes for L.A.'s students. Where is Mayor Eric Garcetti, who entered the fray last year in support of Deasy, in helping the two sides come to grips?