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Opinion

Cortines at the helm

Retirement doesn’t seem to agree with Ramon C. Cortines, the 76-year-old educator who was named superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District last week.

He first tried to step out of the saddle in 1992, when he was schools chief in San Francisco. But he quickly returned to full-time employment, serving in the Clinton administration before going on to head the nation’s largest school system in New York City. After another attempt at retirement, Cortines stepped in for six months in 2000 to serve as interim superintendent in Los Angeles. After trying retirement once again, he was drafted in 2006 to be a deputy mayor and chief education advisor to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

In April of this year, Cortines became top lieutenant to Los Angeles schools Supt. David L. Brewer, and in January, he will replace his former boss at the helm of the nation’s second-largest school district.

Cortines, who still wears the same-sized clothes he donned as a military draftee in 1953, rises at 4 a.m. daily to exercise, works six days a week and takes his first appointment at 6 a.m.

But does he really need the hassle of leading an academically beleaguered school system amid a crippling budget crisis?

Times staff writer Howard Blume interviewed Cortines last week. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.

BLUME: The budget numbers are daunting, $200 million to $400 million in immediate cuts and similar cuts in each of the next two years. How will the district cope?

CORTINES: Unless there is some miracle from Sacramento -- and that means a tax increase or a gift of money from out of the sky -- I think this means employee layoffs. Administrative services will be among the first to go. I think that school principals are going to have to take more responsibility, and local districts are going to have to take more responsibility. It’s very difficult, and it is very demoralizing.

Could that mean having to move students to different classes midyear so that all classes are fuller?

I hope not. Remember, that was on the table recently. I listened to the principals. And I took it off the table, and it’s still off the table.

Last year’s budget, which you didn’t handle, included unpaid furlough days for employees. The unions have challenged that plan, and early on, you sided with the unions.

I had taken the furlough days off the table, but now they are back on.

How do you improve schools in this financial environment?

I look at this as an opportunity to do things differently, to deliver services differently, to manage differently.

Fifteen years ago, you retired as superintendent in San Francisco, a much smaller school district -- where you were quite popular -- partly because of stress that left you with an ulcer. And you want this job?

I think my work ethic is better now. I know how to manage my time better. I work one day every weekend, and I take one complete day off. That’s my day. I never used to do that. I think I know how to smell the flowers better. I don’t let my work consume me.

Does that make you more effective?

Yes.

What have you learned in your other jobs that you can apply here?

For too long, we have focused on the needs of adults and not the needs of students. I’ve been to more than 40 schools in seven months, and I find a wonderful teaching force. I find leadership. But I also find some mediocrity, and when I see it, I call it out. I’m going to continue to put people on notice when I see they’re not living up to what I believe students deserve.

When I look at the test scores, yes, we’ve made gains. Many children are at the proficient level, but many are not. Proficiency has got to be the goal. Not moving from below-basic to basic.

You served as interim superintendent in Los Angeles for six months in 2000. During that time, you developed a decentralization plan that never really went into effect. What happened?

Where I was naive, and where the board was naive, is that when you decentralize -- and the board has approved it and all the unions have bought into it -- you think it will happen. And it didn’t happen.

Did you make a mistake leaving after only six months.

Yes. I should have at least stayed a couple of years to implement what everybody said they wanted, and to iron out the bugs and make modifications where necessary. I thought I was doing the right thing because I said I’d come in and do four or five things: cut the budget, balance the budget, cut the bureaucracy, decentralize and help the board find a superintendent.

Generally, I do everything I’m asked to do and more, but I’ve learned that it’s not enough just to design and bring a plan to fruition. It’s important to effect that plan.

What if the school board doesn’t really know what it’s doing? Or if its members can neither reach consensus nor offer a consistent, driving philosophy?

When I came to L.A. in 2000, I think the board was just as you have described. And when I left L.A., there was a consensus and there was a focus. A lot of people like to rag on boards, but I think the superintendent has a responsibility to help a board and provide leadership as it relates to working together.

Your contract has no buyout provision, just 30 days’ notice.

I serve at the day-to-day pleasure of the board and my own pleasure. I have told them I will be here for three years.

Years ago, you were quoted in an article as saying that you were not necessarily opposed to vouchers (public funds that parents could use to pay for private schools).

I don’t believe students should be held captive. If we’re not doing the job, we have a responsibility to make sure that better opportunities are available. Children are the future.

Supt. Brewer and the school board never agreed on how he should be evaluated, which eventually made his dismissal more controversial. What would be reasonable, specific goals for you?

I’ve already agreed with the board that there will be an evaluation process of the superintendent, and it’s my hope that it will be public.

I want to continue the trajectory of academic achievement that has begun. I want to see parent involvement increase. I want to see out-of-school suspensions decrease. I want to see [good] behavior increasing. I want to see teachers valued. I want to see leadership valued. But I want people to take responsibility.

I’ll give you an example of what I see. When I look at the 34 high-priority schools, all but a very few have made great progress in almost every area. But I think we have a problem, and Supt. Brewer put his finger on it. Many of our African American students, especially boys, and some of our Latino students, especially boys, have not made the progress that they should. They have just as much potential, but I believe we have to address some of the social issues.

In earlier interviews, you mentioned focusing on dropouts. Is that still high on the agenda?

Hell yes. I don’t care if it takes five years or six years for kids to finish high school. I understand that students are different now. They have family responsibilities. They have their own families. They’re emancipated minors. I just want students to finish school. One of the best schools I visited in South Central was the pregnant-minor program. It’s unbelievable the care that these young ladies were getting, the education they were getting from the dedicated teachers at that school. I don’t believe you have to be in a regular classroom. I do believe that instruction has to happen, and we all need to be held accountable.

Is this the last greatest challenge of your professional life?

I would think so. I would never have been here if Supt. Brewer hadn’t asked me. He sincerely felt that I could help him. Because questions weren’t getting answered. Schools were not getting responded to. Some of the people, not all of the people, were just spinning their wheels for each other and had no connection to schools. I remember saying to some instructional people: “You should be in schools and visiting.” And they said, “We don’t visit schools.” Well, they are today, I’ll tell you that.

I certainly never intended to be a superintendent ever in my life again. I’ve had a wonderful career. But at this moment, this needs to be done. As long as I’m here, I’ll give it my full and best dedication. And I will make mistakes. And I will stub my toe. And I won’t cover those up. I’ll get up, dust myself off, apologize, and we’ll move on.

Howard Blume is a Times staff writer


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