Editorial: When will L.A. Unified schools get some stability at the top?

LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner reads a welcome card
LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner, shown reading a welcome card to students at Canterbury Avenue Elementary School in Arleta Tuesday, announced that he will not return after his contract ends in June.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

There will be plenty of people who want to criticize the tenure of departing Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Austin Beutner, but then, there always are when yet another chief executive leaves — or is nudged out the door — after a few years or even less at the helm.

And that is a big part of the problem faced by the nation’s second-largest school district. Its board is perennially divided; its relationship with its most important union, United Teachers Los Angeles, is by turns too cozy or too hostile; and its superintendents turn over at a frightening rate.

There will be time over the coming days and weeks to review Beutner’s nearly three years of stewardship. He was initially linked to the reform, non-union side of the incessant debate over how the schools should be run. He had no real background in education. He hadn’t stayed in any of his recent jobs very long. His style was to do things behind closed doors.


His plan for reorganizing large segments of the district was done with too little transparency and led to UTLA mistrust, which resulted in a crippling strike that clearly damaged Beutner. Despite those early stumbles, however, he in many ways proved a flexible manager, capable of learning and changing his mind.

Above all, he is a systems person, which proved an admirable asset during the year-plus of pandemic. He fed not just the students of L.A. Unified but their families. Though the effort to get computers and Wi-Fi into the hands of all students struggled on several fronts, he was among the fastest superintendents in the nation to make this happen. The COVID-19 testing system that he set up, which delivered results quickly enough to let the school district adjust in real time, isn’t paralleled anywhere.

At the same time, Beutner could have acted more forcefully to ensure that all teachers were putting in real effort on remote learning. And schools should have reopened earlier — and with more of a meaningful education plan.

What L.A. Unified needs at this point — what it has needed for years — is stable leadership. Yes, Beutner is fulfilling his three-year contract, but that wasn’t long enough. When you look at the school districts that have made the most progress over the last 15 years or so, one clear hallmark was a stable executive team — not for three years but for eight or 10 or more — moving in one clear, steady direction.

That sort of leadership is more important than ever as the school district tries to pull many of its students out of a year of learning loss. Schools across the nation have been plagued by this problem, but L.A. Unified was not faring well academically even before the pandemic. The reading instruction is so poor in many classrooms that the district was sued successfully over it, though the resulting agreement covers only some schools. There’s been too much emphasis by the board over the years on shiny-sounding resolutions, such as requiring all students to pass a full set of college prep courses, and not enough on the students actually having to learn the material that would make them successful in college.

Beutner overall could and should have spent more time on curriculum and pedagogy, and less on rearranging the chairs. But those items were on his agenda, and it would have been good to see his planning come to fruition.


There have been signs in recent weeks that some board members — especially those eager to reopen schools — chafed at Beutner’s reluctance to take on UTLA, many of whose members were hesitant to return because of concerns about COVID-19. After the UTLA strike, Beutner often aligned himself with the union at the same time that the balance of power on the school board was shifting toward the charter-supporting side. The board’s continual ideological shifts have kneecapped more than one superintendent, and if they don’t stop, the exodus of superintendents is bound to continue.

Although Beutner has not given a reason for his resignation, he doesn’t have a record of staying where support for him is less than robust. But who knows? The last year has been enough to wear out anyone, and if all he managed was to hand out millions of free meals during a time of intense need and work out a novel system for testing for the novel coronavirus, those were terrific accomplishments on their own.

Finding a new superintendent has been a big challenge in the past and probably will be even bigger this time. The COVID-19 situation means that many school leaders aren’t looking to make a switch right now, especially to a sprawling district that is known for chewing up superintendents and spitting them out.

At this point, the school board needs to create a transparent process for picking a new leader and focus on reopening schools and holding teachers accountable for putting in the best effort they can. Then its members should set ideological differences aside to guide and support their superintendent in ways that will keep that person around for a healthy amount of time, help kids overcome the trauma of the last year and make the top priority learning, learning, learning.