L.A.'s Deasy, Superintendent of Second-Largest School District, Resigns

by | October 17, 2014

By Howard Blume and James Rainey

The end of Supt. John Deasy's dynamic and controversial 3 1/2 year reign over public schools in Los Angeles leaves school district leaders with the daunting task of mending broken relationships with employees, especially teachers, while stoking a continued upswing in student achievement.

Deasy resigned Wednesday after months of friction with his elected bosses on the school board, much of it generated by a pair of technology debacles -- the troubled rollout of a plan to provide an iPad for every student and teacher, and the breakdown of a records system that left thousands of students without needed classes at the start of the school year.

The school board's choice Thursday of former Supt. Ramon C. Cortines to again lead the district, for an unspecified interim period, signaled a desire to restore equilibrium in the nation's second-largest school district after enervating battles over issues like discipline, teacher evaluations and in-class breakfasts for students.

Cortines immediately sent signals that he would try to be a peacemaker.

"We have to create a sense that the district cares about its employees -- all of them, whether it's teachers, whether it's classified [employees].... We cannot take people for granted," said the 82-year-old educator, who previously ran L.A. Unified from 2009 to 2011. Cortines, who begins work Monday, noted that negotiations continue with teachers, who have been working under an expired contract for several years.

While Deasy's critics on the seven-member school board deemed him uncommunicative and autocratic, those opponents now must find a chief executive willing to deal with a board that can be fractious and hyper-political.

Academics and community leaders said it could be difficult to recruit a top-flight replacement -- a problem in common with many large, urban school systems.

"It's the job of the school board to create an environment in which any superintendent can be successful," said Charles Kerchner, an emeritus professor of education at Claremont Graduate University. "The trench warfare between the factions on the board has got to get solved in order for the district to attract a first-rate candidate into the superintendency."

Shane Martin, dean of the school of education at Loyola Marymount University, said the top job at L.A. Unified is "one of the hardest jobs in the whole United States."

The departure of the 53-year-old Deasy, who once worked for Bill Gates' charitable foundation and ran the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, drew a predictably mixed response.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan described himself as "disappointed" and said he hoped that a new superintendent would continue a reform agenda, driven by the notion that education is a civil right.

"We simply cannot afford to see improvements in student achievement slow down or stall in the nation's second-largest school district," Duncan said.

Jed Wallace, chief executive of the California Charter Schools Assn., called Deasy's resignation "a sobering moment for the city of Los Angeles ... when a leader of John's capabilities and who has a commitment to the needs of youths first is not able to continue his service."

Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, welcomed Deasy's departure, saying the district's next leader should "shift to a more collaborative management style."

The union leader pledged that UTLA would try to recraft some of Deasy's signature policies, such as a teacher evaluation system that uses testing data to measure student growth. "That well is poisoned," he said.

Some teachers expressed glee that Deasy was leaving. "If you feel the earth begin to violently shake sometime tomorrow, don't worry -- it won't be an earthquake," said one adult-school instructor. "It'll be 40,000 LAUSD employees dancing." The instructor asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.

Such vitriol was nowhere in sight when Deasy came to L.A. Unified in 2010 as deputy superintendent and heir apparent to Cortines. The newcomer was placed in the job at the quiet insistence of then-L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and philanthropists who pushed for dramatic change in education, often in opposition to teacher unions. But Deasy also had tacit support from the previous head of the teachers union.

Deasy, however, never got along with later union leaders. It didn't help that he allowed the future UTLA president Caputo-Pearl to be forcibly transferred out of Crenshaw High, where Caputo-Pearl was a respected teacher who regularly challenged the actions of administrators.

Deasy delivered a two-page letter to the board, defending his work. In an interview with The Times, he said he acted with urgency because he was so concerned by the "depth and scope of kids in poverty." He also acknowledged that he "was unable to adjust my leadership style and my expectations for the system in a way that would have gotten me longer tenure in the job. I own 100 percent of that."

Several board members felt he didn't respect their intelligence and only came to them when he needed them. They grew to distrust him, and the feeling was mutual.

He won plaudits for his sense of urgency and his assertion that the civil rights of students came before all else, but criticism came from employees who said he charged forward without getting their buy-in.

All parties agreed on the need to improve the bare-bones evaluation system for teachers and principals.

But principals came to feel that their jobs were constantly at risk. And teachers didn't trust that a system developed by Deasy would be fair.

Deasy fired more teachers for poor performance and held principals more responsible for tenure decisions, with the result that fewer teachers kept their jobs long enough to achieve tenure protections.

Ever mindful of schools as a social institution, Deasy moved to reduce high suspension rates, especially among black and Latino boys. Deasy had been outraged to learn about a student being suspended for not having a pencil or failing to turn in homework. His new policy banned suspensions for "willful defiance." At many schools, however, teachers felt that the edict meant that disruptive students remained in class.

Test scores and graduation rates continued to rise under Deasy, and critics found it difficult to compile hard evidence against him. That changed with last year's rollout of a $1.3-billion plan to provide an iPad to every student, teacher and school administrator.

Experts who oversee school finances questioned the use of long-term bonds to buy devices that would last only a few years. Some teachers and students were thrilled by the shiny new hardware, but many wondered why the district didn't explore cheaper alternatives.

A former Deasy deputy's ties to a key tablet software contractor, among other issues, raised questions about the bidding process. Deasy vehemently denied wrongdoing but agreed to slow down the computer purchases and look at other vendors.

With the iPad furor still smoldering, news arrived this fall of the failure of the student records system. Hundreds of pupils at Jefferson High School could not get classes they needed to graduate or to qualify for college. The failure renewed questions about the district's basic competency.

Deasy's contract would have run through June 2016. He will remain on the payroll as a consultant through the end of the year, receiving more than $70,000.

Board member Steve Zimmer described Deasy as a catalyst who has helped push ahead needed change in the school district. But Zimmer said it was time for a different kind of leader.

"Ensuring that the changes take hold requires a different set of skills," Zimmer. "We don't need another new policy. We have to make sure that the changes actually have the support and resources to take hold. This is not a judgment against John Deasy."

Times staff writers Teresa Watanabe, Stephen Ceasar and Kim Christensen contributed to this report.

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