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Cortines on returning to LAUSD a third time: ‘They called my bluff’

Michael Janofsky | October 16, 2014

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ray cortines

Incoming school Supt., Ray Cortines

No one was more surprised that Ray Cortines became the latest LA Unified superintendent than Ray Cortines.

“I hadn’t been planning to return, and I didn’t negotiate with the board,” he told LA School Report today. “The only caveat I put out was that it would have to be a unanimous vote, and I didn’t think it would be. I was taken aback: they called my bluff!”

Cortines, 82, a former school district leader in New York, San Francisco, Pasadena and twice before in Los Angeles, was named today as the interim replacement for the resigning John Deasy — the result of a unanimous vote by the board to bring him back. He served as LA Unified superintendent briefly in 2000, then again from 2009 to 2011, when he retired and one of the deputies he hired, Deasy, succeeded him.

What Deasy leaves to his former mentor is a district with improving student academic metrics but also whirlwinds of problems, not least a teachers union, UTLA, that had a balky relationship with the district under Deasy. These days, the difference in their bargaining positions for a raise in teacher salaries amounts to $188 million a year.

“Ray Cortines has more experience, skill and expertise at running a large urban public school district in the nation and maybe the world,” said board member Steve Zimmer, explaining why the seven board members turned to Cortines. “There simply is no one who could immediately step in and stabilize our district while continuing to build a collaborative trust needed for us to keep our momentum moving forward.”

Cortines said he’s ready to jump in, already with plans for two meetings on Monday, his first official day on the job: a session with the district’s labor negotiating team, followed by a meeting with the union’s counterpart.

“When I meet with him, if I don’t have the answers to his questions, I’ll tell him I don’t have the answers,” he said of the UTLA president, Alex Caputo-Pearl. “But people know that I care about the employees. One of the reasons I agreed to come back is that I know how good our employees are, not just those in the classroom, but cafeteria workers, bus drivers, repair and maintenance people. It takes all those people to run a successful district.”

For all the care he has for employees, he also has the same budget that Deasy had, which leaves open questions about how quickly, if at all, he can satisfy the union’s salary demands. The union has threatened to strike over salaries and a range of other issues.

On the issue of iPads for all LA Unified students, the one issue that probably caused Deasy more problems than any other in recent months, Cortines said the devices were only “a tool in the learning process” and that he favored a more studied approach for how they might be utilized among various age groups.

That appeared to be a missing element of the plan under Deasy, who wanted to assure that all 650,000 LA Unified students had one.

“I believe in technology but I’m not a techie,” Cortines said. “It’s an important tool. Teachers, administrators and parents need to be involved in the kind of plan we put forward.”

As for his relations with the current board, Cortines predicted that he and the members might not always agree on every issue.

“But we will respect and be civil to each other,” he said. “Certainly, that’s what happened the last time, and back then, it was a fractious board. But we worked very hard together and we did accomplish things. We didn’t always agree, but we were always respectful. I don’t expect to have them in my hip pocket. But nobody’s in my hip pocket. Not at 82.”

The superintendent’s job, he said, is ultimately “for helping the board, not being an adversary. When you’re older than God as I am, the lines are very blurry to get to success.”

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