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L.A. school system poised to hire senior Gates Foundation official [Updated]

June 22, 2010 |  8:24 am

Los Angeles Unified School District officials are poised to bring in a senior administrator from the influential Gates Foundation to help run the nation’s second-largest school system, a senior district official confirmed.

[Updated at 12:50 p.m.: In a closed session, the Board of Education has just voted to hire John Deasy as deputy superintendent. Details about his contract will be released shortly, a district spokesman said.]

The choice of John Deasy, scheduled for a vote Tuesday by the district's Board of Education, already has resulted in a complication. The school board’s vice president, Yolie Flores, recently accepted a job funded by the foundation and, therefore, won’t be voting on Deasy’s hiring.

Deasy is being considered for deputy superintendent in the LAUSD. That job’s previous holder was Ramon C. Cortines who, within a year, moved up to the top job in December 2008. Since then, Cortines, 77, has worked without a senior deputy, partly as an acknowledgment of the district’s ongoing budget woes.

Deasy’s hiring is likely to launch speculation that he could succeed Cortines, who is not expected to stay more than another two years.

In recent months, the aide most closely resembling a top deputy has been Matt Hill, who reports to Cortines on some of the district’s central and most sensitive reform efforts. Hill’s salary is privately funded by the locally based Broad Foundation.  And some of Hill’s lieutenants are funded by the private Wasserman Foundation, also based locally.

All three foundations have focused heavily on changing how teachers are evaluated. Such efforts have been viewed with suspicion by the leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles, the district’s teachers union, as have similar-themed initiatives advanced by Flores. Union leaders said they distrust test-score-based evaluation and oppose the elimination of seniority protections.

Flores announced this month that she would not seek a second four-year term. Instead, she’ll head a nonprofit focused on teacher effectiveness, with startup funding of $3.5 million from the Seattle-based Gates Foundation.  During the final year of her term, she’ll work part-time for the as-yet unnamed entity at a salary of $144,000.

“I now have the opportunity to lead a new education-advocacy organization that will focus on supporting efforts to assist and improve teaching here in Los Angeles and in other schools districts in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Florida,” she said in a release announcing her move.

The Gates Foundation is funding efforts in those states to develop teacher-evaluation systems that are at least partly based on student test scores. A consortium of five local charter-school management organizations received a $60-million grant for that purpose in November. Only in L.A. did the money go to independently managed charter schools rather than the school district.

At last week’s school board meeting, one of these organizations, the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, had business before the board. The charters for three of its schools were up for renewal.

Flores recused herself on the matter, officials said.

Whether she needed to take that step is debatable. The vote on the charters had no direct effect on either her new employment or the Gates Foundation, but Flores said in a recent interview that she intended to exercise caution.

“I do want to be extra certain that there is no conflict of interest as I finish my term on the board,” she said. “I will also take into consideration any perceived conflict.”

One senior official, who could not be quoted because he was not speaking for the school system, said there could be potential conflict questions “on everything related to teacher effectiveness and contract/seniority reforms.”

In an interview, Cortines said Flores made it clear she would not vote on the decision to employ Deasy.

Last week’s charter school renewals were not especially controversial, but a trickier issue could be the fate of eight low-performing schools and nine new campuses that will be eligible for takeover from groups inside or outside the school system, including the companies awarded the Gates grants.

The district itself has received only one Gates grant recently, $1.3 million for improving algebra instruction, officials said.

At the Gates Foundation, Deasy has served as deputy director of education since September 2008. Before that, he was superintendent of Prince George’s County Public Schools, Maryland’s second-largest school system and the nation’s 18th largest district with 134,000 students. Before that, he headed the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. Earlier in his career, he taught high school biology, chemistry, calculus and English at the high school level and coached high school sports.

In all three districts he led, “he championed fair teacher and administrator evaluations, pay-for-performance, staff development and training, and data-based decision-making,” the Gates Foundation said when it hired him.

Deasy was on hand locally in November when the charter schools won the teacher-evaluation grant. He called the initiative part of “a fundamental obligation to serve the civil rights of youth” and spoke of students’ rights “to have a highly effective teacher in front of them every day. Nothing matters more.”

-- Howard Blume

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