There's a storm cloud gathering over Los Angeles politics these days, and the man at its center is schools Supt. John Deasy.
In office since 2010, Deasy has fenced with his bosses, the seven-member school board, almost from the get-go. Lately, however, the situation has deteriorated: United Teachers Los Angeles, the union that represents teachers in the L.A. Unified School District, has sharpened its critique of the superintendent, calling for him to be held "accountable" in his upcoming evaluation. A recent election to fill a vacancy on the closely divided board went to the candidate, George McKenna, considered less friendly to Deasy. Deasy has made matters worse by some admittedly sloppy handling of a deal intended to put iPads in the hands of students. The board is scheduled to deliver its performance evaluation of Deasy next month, and that could turn into a major confrontation.
It's taking a toll on the superintendent. I visited him in his office last week, and though he seemed as energetic as ever — he talks fast and riffles through papers with lightning speed — he looked drawn. Already slight, he's lost weight.
Deasy is hardly the first public official to be put through the local grinder — those with long memories will recall LAPD Chief Willie L. Williams' slow end, and a number of Deasy's predecessors in the superintendent's office have been dragged across these coals — but what makes his case unusual is that he's being pounded despite considerable success.
During Deasy's tenure, student test scores have steadily improved and done so across the district's ethnic groups. The percentage of non-English speakers who master English every year has nearly doubled. The number of students suspended from school has dropped from 46,000 in Deasy's first year to 8,300 last year. Attendance is up, dropouts are down. The graduation rate, 69%, is the highest in the district's modern history.
In short, more students are in school for more time. They are doing better on tests and graduating at higher rates. And that's despite grinding budget battles and an overwhelmingly poor student body: More than 8 out of 10 LAUSD students live in poverty; 18,000 of them are homeless .
"My purpose in this job," Deasy told me emphatically during our interview, "is to lift children out of poverty."
Some of those trends, such as improving test scores, were underway before Deasy came to office, so he cannot rightly claim full credit for them. But he personally led the effort to reduce suspensions, he's championed "pilot schools" where teachers and other members of a school community take charge of their campuses, and he's aggressively fought to boost graduation rates by addressing the issues that cause students to drop out. Even Deasy's critics acknowledge that he is a powerful intellect and a determined education reformer.
So, what's not to like? By his own admission, Deasy can be bullheaded and impatient. More than 1,000 district employees were let go last year — some were fired, some resigned rather than be fired, some were denied tenure — and Deasy's proud of that. He's quick to correct and sometimes short-tempered. A 2011 clash with a substitute teacher — he dropped in on her class and objected to her teaching approach, to which she responded by asking him to leave — ended up with her being fired. Teachers still talk about it.
And then there is the iPad issue. Over the objections of some doubters, Deasy pushed hard to secure tablet computers for every student in the district. Eager to launch the program quickly, he may have skirted district contracting rules, and his communications with vendors are under investigation. No one is suggesting he did anything for personal gain, but his trademark impatience may have left him vulnerable. "I could have done a thousand things better," he conceded during our conversation. Nevertheless, rather than taking a conciliatory approach with the school board, he has gone on the offensive, filing a public records request to obtain email correspondence of board members relating to the iPad project.
But here's the perversity of punishing Deasy for aggressiveness: For more than 20 years, the dominant complaint about the district has been its lethargy. District officials have tinkered with this program or that, and all too often they have been content to offer solutions that will take years to show results. To a parent with a child in school now, that's not reform; that's failure.
With Deasy, the board traded in complacency for urgency. That's sometimes been rough, but the alternative robbed generations of Los Angeles students of their futures.