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Commentary: The long goodbye, the no goodbye, the tears of Cortines

Michael Janofsky | June 24, 2015

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LAUSD school board CrotinesThat was quite a board meeting yesterday, with more emotion on display than Nixon or LBJ ever showed in announcing their decisions to leave the White House.

The first wave came in The Long Goodbye to Bennett Kayser, whose bid for a second term was thwarted by a member of the group he most detests, a charter school executive.

For more than 90 minutes, a parade of admirers praised Kayser as the conscience of the board — for standing up to former superintendent John Deasy, for supporting teachers no matter what, for opposing charters no matter what, for holding to his principles and for demonstrating how a neurological challenge, Parkinson’s disease, is no barrier to public service.

All well and good — although spending more than a third of a four-hour meeting on good-byes seemed a tad excessive, even for this board.

Maybe the farewell would not have seemed so gaudy were it not for the polar-opposite manner in which his colleague Tamar Galatzan finished her day.

She, too, lost last month, ending eight years of service on the board, twice as long as Kayser. She had requested no public ceremony, due in part, perhaps, to the lingering animus of members who could not abide by her loyalty to Deasy. She was as faithful to him as Kayser was to UTLA, the teachers union.

But political sympathies aside, it was stunning to see her disappear without anyone at least acknowledging her public service over the years, if not for holding to her principles.

No one from the board, including the other Deasy acolyte, Mónica García, said a word. Nor did anyone else in the room.

Poof . . . Gone . . . What was her name, again?

The other passion play was Superintendent Ramon Cortines’s weepy, halting speech — about the 2016 budget!

Conceding that the board can no longer pay for everything it wants — which it was willing to do under Deasy — he choked up through his remarks and bawled openly at the end after reminding listeners, “There are no more presents under the Christmas tree.”

It was odd in a way. This was the district’s most robust spending plan in years, nearly $8 billion worth, with thousands of teachers and other employees getting a raise for the first time since the Big Bang. Abandoned and neglected programs would be blooming back to life. New money to spruce up schools. More than 125 countries don’t have that much to spend annually. 

Yet the prospect of looming deficits and scores of unavoidable layoffs left him visibly shaken, so much so that he suggested he could serve only another six months, not the year he had agreed to.

More than a few observers watched him break down at the end, dabbing his eyes with tissue, and wondered if he were ill. Discrete questions brought an answer: No, he wasn’t suffering; he had just worked so hard on the budget and he really felt bad about the inability to rescind more layoff notices and the possibility, however remote, that the budget would not be approved.

The members loved him for it. Cortines, after all, is the district’s protector, the father figure, the un-Deasy. They missed no opportunities to thank him for his hard work, his collaborative management style, his willingness to take on the hard issues of running a bureaucracy as large and unwieldy as LA Unified is.

Imagine how long his farewell will be. Better bring a sleeping bag. And tissues.

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