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A toast to the survivors of LA Unified’s wild and crazy year

Vanessa Romo | June 2, 2015

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LA Unified

UTLA rally at Grand Park

The end of another school year this week brings to a close one of LA Unified’s most crazy, controversial and dysfunctional academic years. It’s a real testament to students, teachers and other school personnel that they persevered through so much disruption and tumult.

So, a tip of the hat to the nation’s second-largest school district as it navigated through a Hit Parade of memorable moments. Here are 10 of them, in no particular order of consequence:

The MISIS Meltdown

Even before the first day of school, the MISIS debut was a debacle. Summer school teachers who tested out the district-developed software, which was supposed to streamline and centralize all student data including scheduling, grades, attendance records, and disciplinary files, did their best to sound the alarm about the program’s myriad problems.

But under the direction of Matt Hill, Chief Strategy Officer, and Ron Chandler, Chief Information Officer — both of them now working elsewhere — the district plowed ahead with the district-wide roll out assuring anyone who asked, “We got it!”

While the original budget allocated for MISIS was $29 million, spending is likely to top $133 million next week when the board is expected to approve after another $79.6 million in bond funds. Meanwhile, the district’s IT team is working alongside Microsoft employees on continued repairs that will last through 2015-16.

Superintendent John Deasy Resigns

Superintendent John Deasy was at ideological odds with three, then four members of the school board throughout most of his tenure. But it was the one-two punch of the MISIS failure that left thousands of students across the district class-less for several weeks combined with the continued scrutiny over the terrible iPad deal the district struck with Apple and Pearson that ultimately lead to his departure in October 2014.

His aggressive policies — such as the iPads-for-all program, reconstitution of consistently low-performing schools and his anti-tenure stance — kept him at odds with board members, teachers and the public at large.

Deasy is now working as a consultant for The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems as a “superintendent-in-residence.” The center is a leadership academy for school administrators, which is funded by Eli Broad, a longtime Deasy supporter and powerful financier of California education reform efforts.

Cortines Redux, Redux

You know that scene toward the end of J.R. Tolkien’s “Return of the King” when it seems as if all is lost and the Witch-King of Angmar is about to defeat the good guys but then Aragorn, out of nowhere, shows up with the Army of the Dead to save the day? That’s basically what it was like for the board when Ramon Cortines was plucked out of retirement to lead the district for a third time following Deasy’s departure.

Since taking over, the members have embraced a new found unity with Cortines, even turning their backs on initiatives they wholly supported under Deasy, including the billion dollar iPad initiative which they had unanimously approved.

Cortines’ contract was renewed for another year last month. And, according to board member Steve Zimmer, the octogenarian will be “really involved” in the selection of his successor in the coming year.

iPads for All! iPads for Some. iPads for None?

Deasy was the first to halt the district’s iPad buying spree following the disclosure of emails suggesting he and other district officials had tailored the bid process to favor Apple and the software maker, Pearson, during the bid process. At the time, he said the district would reopen bidding to take advantage of a changing marketplace and student needs. But he quit before that happened.

Once Cortines came on board he lifted the moratorium to ensure there would be enough devices for students to take the Smarter Balanced tests. Then came the FBI investigation during which agents seized 20 boxes of documents related to the deal.

Cortines finally cancelled the district’s contract with the two companies in April, saying LA Unified will not pay for any future deliveries of iPads that have Pearson educational software on them. The district will also be looking to recoup the cost of any devices that did not work properly.

A day later, Pearson stock plummeted.

Shuffling the Deck at Beaudry

Since taking over, Cortines has shaken things up in nearly every department either reassigning top level executives or accepting a slew of resignations from former Deasy appointees.

Here’s a short list of people who find themselves in new surroundings:

Ron Chandler — umm — resigned amid public outrage over MISIS and the iPad deal. Matt Hill, recently hired as superintendent of Burbank Unified School District, will be leaving at the end of the year. Tommy Chang, LAUSD’s superintendent of the Intensive Support and Innovation Educational Service Center, got a new job as superintendent of Boston  Public Schools. He has taken Donna Muncey, an aide to Deasy in three different school districts, as well as former communications director, Lydia Ramos.

Two of the most notable promotions were given to Diane Pappas and Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana. Pappas started off the year as as an attorney at the General Counsel’s office. Now, she’s leading the MISIS recovery effort. Melendez is taking over the newly formed office of the Chief Executive Officer, Educational Services.

Mo’ computerized testing; Mo’ problems

Year two of the Smarter Balanced computerized testing didn’t go very well. For starters, teachers and students who were promised they’d get months to practice taking the exam on iPads or laptops didn’t get their devices until weeks before the test, in part because of the backlash against the iPads for all program as well as general disorganization by the district.

And, in the only district-wide “dress rehearsal,” most schools reported experiencing technical snafus. Just how bad things did or did not go during the actual test will remain a mystery for another month.

“We won’t have results to share publicly until July or so,” Gayle Pollard-Terry, a district spokesperson, told LA School Report.

The one bright spot is that this year’s test results won’t be used to for any high-stakes purposes.

Let’s Make a Contract Deal

After more than eight years without one, the district finally negotiated a new contract with UTLA, averting a threatened teachers strike under new president Alex Caputo-Pearl, who began saber-rattling even before he won office in early 2014. Other labor partners got new deals, as well.

Teachers will get a 10.4 percent salary increase over the next two years. In all, the agreement with UTLA will cost a total of $633 million over three years, plus an additional $31.6 million for several labor groups with “me too” clauses, also over three years, according to LA Unified officials.

The district signed off on deals with Service Employees International Union Local 99 (SEIU), Associated Administrators of Los Angeles (AALA) and Teamsters Local 572, agreeing to salary increases of roughly 2 percent over the next two years and 2.5 percent in 2016. The proposed contract with the California School Employee Association (CSEA), made up of library aides, gardeners and payroll clerks, includes a retroactive 2 percent payment for 2013-14.

Turnover on the board

Four school board seats were up for grabs this year causing rampant speculation about the impact of this configuration over that configuration. But after nearly $5 million in spending by pro-charter and pro-union groups, it appears that the balance on the board, which at the moment is a majority of union-leaning, will remain as is.

Despite a win by Ref Rodriguez over Bennett Kayser, five of the seven board members were elected with the help of the teachers union. Tamar Galatzan lost her bid for a third term to first-time candidate, Scott Schmerelson. Richard Vladovic handily defeated Lydia Gutierrez.

And George McKenna, who won a special election last year to fill out the term of the late Marguerite LaMotte, won, running unopposed.

Not that too many people cared. Fewer than 10 percent of registered voters showed up to cast a ballot.

Budget Bonanza

Despite doom and gloom projections that the district would be facing a $130 million deficit this year, the state tax revenues turned good news onto better news. Latest figures estimate LA Unified will receive an additional $710 million.

Still, Cortines has been reluctant to allocate the extra cash toward specific programs, insisting the added money is one-time funding.

In April, the district issued 609 lay-off notices to a combination of teachers, counselors and social workers explaining that “reductions in force” are necessary to balance the 2015-16 budget. The district also announced plans to cut pre-kindergarten and adult education programs. But that was before Governor Jerry Brown’s revised budget.

The board will finalize the 2015-16 budget in the coming weeks.

Ill-Conceived Ethnic Studies

When the LA Unified school board passed a resolution that would begin the process of making ethic studies a graduation requirement, it did so without knowing how much it would cost. A new committee report released last month estimates that it will cost almost $72.7 million over four years, an amount that far exceeds the initial district estimate of $3.4 million that was tossed around at the November meeting when the resolution was voted on.

While many district schools already offer ethnic studies courses as electives, LA Unified became only the second district in the state after El Rancho Unified to have an ethnic studies course required for graduation.

One of the committee’s key recommendations is a significant delay in implementing the new graduation requirements. The board’s November resolution called on ethic studies coursework to be required for graduation for the class of 2019, but the committee wants it to be delayed until the class of 2022, meaning incoming 9th graders in 2018 would be the first to have the new requirement.

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