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Conversation with Ramon Cortines

Los Angeles’ New Reformer

In January, Ramon Cortines was appointed by the board to take over as superintendent of the financially strapped and academically stubborn Los Angeles Unified School District. Succeeding David Brewer, a retired Navy admiral whose critics called an ineffective figurehead, the 76-year-old veteran administrator is receiving a positive response to his taking on the superintendency of the country’s second-largest school district. But the job will not be without formidable obstacles. He took some time to talk to DA about the challenges facing the district and how he plans to move ahead.

What is at the top of your agenda as superintendent of the country’s second-largest school district?

Well, two things, but it’s really one. The focus has to return to the classroom. I think that teachers in this district have shown that they are responsible, and I want them respected and valued. Secondly, I think it has to be about leadership. I don’t think we’ve done a good job in choosing administrators and helping them understand what leadership really means.

How severe is the financial crisis facing the district?

For the 2008-2009 year our budget deficit is $200 million. For 2009-2010 it will be between $500 and $600 million. I avoided midyear cuts because I thought it would destabilize the district. One of the things I’m doing is attempting to present a plan that is not only more cost-effective but is more management-effective by greatly reducing the central office. We have declining enrollment and declining resources. But for the last five or six years, we have had an increase of staff—I believe for the wrong reasons. That has to be dealt with. So I will be recommending the removal of hundreds of people at the central office, and I have requested a 50 percent cut to all local district offices.

A 50 percent cut sounds huge.

It is. I’m looking at district 2 right now—their central budget is $4.8 million, and their proposal is now $2.98 million. And these cuts to balance the budget will affect schools.

Will the classroom experience be negatively affected?

How I think it will be affected is in the kind of support and wraparound services that are essential for children of poverty and many of our ethnic groups and immigrant children. For example, we have a literacy unit in the central district. When I came nine months ago as the deputy superintendent, I said, “What are you doing in schools?” And they said to me, “We don’t visit schools.” Well, I don’t know how you do literacy if you don’t visit the school. So they won’t be there.

Could the economic stimulus package solve the problems?

No. Mainly because we’ve identified over 5,000 personnel—both teachers and administrators—that are outside the classroom. I think that’s way too many. We’ll know more about the stimulus bill soon, but I don’t think we’ll see it until next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

How will the stimulus package be helpful specifically?

For example, the stimulus package has money for special education. Well, there is a major encroachment from special education on the general fund. So that will be helpful. One of the things that we also need to do is increase and enhance the participation in our early childhood programs. Or begin to look at Head Start. I will be looking at how you make decisions not centrally based on categorical funds but on how you allow schools, principals, teachers and parents to decide what is best for their school.

What would the stimulus package allow you to do?

I think we have to use it judiciously. I think a lot of people are looking at it to solve all of their problems. It doesn’t mean that we still aren’t going to have to make very hard decisions. I think there needs to be a plan with the stimulus money, with benchmarks and evidence that we’re using it correctly.

Many are saying that it can change the role of the federal government in education, no?

I think it can. I hope it changes it right. I hope that there’s some accountability. We’re still in many areas at the bottom. But I’m looking at the growth. And that’s what I want to encourage. That’s what I want to incentify. I do believe that the stimulus can help.

How would it help?

Well, for example, if algebra is a gatekeeper, I do believe that you can begin programs—algebra should be imbedded in the entire curriculum, kindergarten through the seventh grade. I believe pre-algebra should be offered in the seventh grade, and then algebra.

So with new federal funds would you hire more math teachers?

Yes, or train or improve professional development for more math teachers. I’m not interested in getting kids from below basic to basic. That’s a step, but the goal should be proficient. Proficient creates a level playing field.

How big of a problem are declining graduation rates for the district?

Ours are actually going up slightly. But they are still not good. Last year they rose to 66 percent from 64 percent. I meet with students. I talk to parents, I talk to teachers. But I think the students are really overlooked. When I was chancellor in New York, I did away with all the bonehead math and science. And it was not based on what adults told me—it was based on what students told me. And the next year more kids passed the Regents math and science exams than ever before.

L.A. has a large ELL population. Do you have new plans for students whose native language is not English?

Not “new” plans, but people are going to be held accountable for monitoring kids rather than labeling them “from the projects,” “poor,” or whatever, because we have best practices in this district that show that if you really do the job, those children learn. One of the things I’ve noticed that is very different than when I was here in 2000 is more interactive teaching going on in the classrooms. I’ve visited almost 60 schools already in the nine months, and the teachers are not just sitting or standing behind a desk. They’re really interacting with the students.

What lessons have you taken from your previous districts?

I think I’m far more inclusive now, and what most other districts don’t feel strongly about, I do: I think unions have to be part of the solution, rather than the problem. Those are our teachers, those are our administrators. Those are our office technicians and technical staff. They have to be part of the solution. And remember, the reason that we have unions is because of people like me—capricious superintendents and boards of education!

Now what exactly do you mean by that?

You know perfectly well what I mean!

-Zach Miners