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Ramon Cortines is named LAUSD superintendent*

December 16, 2008 |  2:54 pm

*Updated at 5:04 p.m.

The Los Angeles Board of Education today named Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, one of the country’s most experienced and respected educators, head of the nation’s second-largest school system.

Cortines replaces retired Navy Vice Admiral David L. Brewer, who was terminated last week midway through a four-year contract.

The elevation of Cortines was widely expected, in part because civic leaders, including school board  members, stressed the importance of stabilizing the district's leadership amid a historic budget crisis.

Following his afternoon appointment, Cortines talked about the economic crisis facing the district and the nation.

"We will not do things the same way," he said, adding that the district will find "new ways of providing services to parents and working with teachers and working with administrators and working with community. We are the urban sprawl, but it is time that we lock arms on behalf of our children. We must put the students first — not special interests. And so there will be change and change will be good for all of us."

The school board vote was unanimous and came exactly seven days after it voted 5 to 2 to buy out Brewer at a cost of at least $517,500. School board President Monica Garcia led the move to force Brewer’s exit, with the implicit endorsement of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and some other key civic leaders.

The new schools chief will earn $250,000 a year — unchanged from his current salary as the district's No. 2 man and $50,000 less than his predecessor.

The board appointed Cortines to a three-year term, but his contract is "at-will," meaning that he or the school board can end his employment at any time. Although Brewer’s $300,000-a-year contract was in line with some superintendent salaries, Cortines asked for a less remunerative deal, in part as a symbolic recognition of the budget woes.

Cortines immediately faces the challenge of $200 million to $400 million in midyear budget reductions, and similar levels of slashing are predicted for each of the next two years.

In addition, he will oversee contentious salary and benefit negotiations with employee unions. Cortines has been working since April as Brewer’s top subordinate, managing day-to-day operations as well as long-term planning for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Cortines, 76, has served as schools superintendent in New York City — the nation’s largest school system — as well as San Francisco, San Jose and Pasadena. Eight years ago, he also served as interim superintendent in Los Angeles for six months after the board bought out the contract of then-Supt. Ruben Zacarias. At that time, Cortines was offered the permanent job but turned it down. Before rejoining L.A. Unified, Cortines was a deputy mayor and top education advisor to Villaraigosa. The mayor’s office has expressed strong support for Cortines on repeated occasions.

In public in recent days, Villaraigosa has said that he will respect the decision of the board in choosing a leader. Cortines enjoys widespread civic support from business leaders to directors of nonprofits, to arts patrons, to traditional educators to unconventional reform advocates.

Opinion is more divided, however, on what role Cortines will or should play going forward. Some observers cast him mainly as a competent, unflinching, level-headed crisis manager to take the district through the emergency triage of the budget crisis; others cast him as a genuine agent of lasting reforms.

In recent years, L.A. Unified has made steady incremental progress, according to state standardized test scores. And, historically, the district has performed comparably with school systems that serve similar populations of low-income students, many with limited English-speaking skills.

But nationally recognized education reformers have cast the school system as having fallen behind the most proactive urban school districts, including the public school systems of New York City, Boston and Chicago. The head of Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan, was unveiled today as President-elect Barack Obama's nominee to head the U.S. Department of Education.

L.A. Unified's overall student performance trails the state average, with about half of the nearly 700,000 students dropping out or failing to graduate on time.

"If there is anybody that can get the district moving in the right direction again, it’s Cortines," said Michael Piscal, founder and chief executive of ICEF Public Schools, which operates 13 local charter schools. "The only question is whether it will be 10 miles per hour or 60 miles per hour."

And the determining factor, he said, will be whether the school board is ready either to lead or get of Cortines’ way. "The board has not reached a consensus about what the way forward is for our kids," Piscal said.

— Howard Blume

Photo credit: Los Angeles Times