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If John Deasy is resigning of his own accord or he is soon to be fired, his potential departure as superintendent of the LA Unified School District further undermines leadership of the city’s public education community at a time of massive change and uncertainty.
Whether a victim of policies judged too aggressive by a conservative board or his own frustrations with it, Deasy would leave LA Unified rudderless amid the district’s shift to a challenging new instructional curriculum, turmoil over teacher evaluations, controversy over the iPad rollout, uncertainty over the use of student test scores, mounting conflict over new revenue from the state, tenuous relations with the teachers union and, of course, strong disagreements with a school board that clearly dislikes many of his policy choices.
“He just can’t get anything done,” a district official said of Deasy’s relationship with the board. “They block everything he tries to do. If he can’t move them, why would he want to stay?”
Further, his leadership team is already without a permanent chief deputy of instruction — the current deputy, Jaime Aquino, has announced that he, too, is leaving — and the board with which he must work smoothly if not happily, has been weakened by a president facing charges of sexual harassment, verbal abuse and a censure motion by one of his own board colleagues.
Deasy has not confirmed a decision to step down. He has told various media outlets, including LA School Report, that he has not submitted a letter of resignation and would clarify his situation after the board conducts his annual performance review on Tuesday. Nonetheless, the union wasted little time, last night responding to the news as if it were a certainty, issuing a statement under the headline, “UTLA: It’s about time.” The first sentence: “It is no secret that UTLA has had major concerns with John Deasy’s leadership.”
Any specific reason that functioned as a last straw for Deasy or the board will only become known if he or members disclose it. Yet, it has been clear for months that his tenure has been growing ever more tenuous and combustible despite public expressions of support for him by board members who otherwise criticized his policy choices and voted against them.
It was not always thus. He rose to the superintendent’s office in January 2011 as a close ally of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and inherited a school board that approved his ascension, 6-0, and voted reliably in favor of his policies. That dynamic underwent a dramatic shift after Villaraigosa left office and the mix of board members changed this year, with the so-called “reformers” losing the majority. No longer was an aggressive change agenda embraced, as the new board showed a closer alliance to the teachers union. Typical votes were 5-2 against him, with only Tamar Galatzan and the former board president, Monica Garcia, as dependable allies.
Some board meetings were almost painful to watch. In a recent wrangle over budget issues, members peppered him with observations, questions and second-guessing that did little to define board priorities. “Just tell us what you want,” he responded, “and we’ll give it to you.”
Deasy’s yearning for change, amplified by his support for charter schools, teacher evaluations tied to student test scores and the introduction of iPads, did little to endear him to other power bases that cared more about job security for teachers, any teachers, and a slower march toward the future. He was even seen by some LA Unified insiders as a man of enormous ego and hubris, determined to brandish his profile with bold strokes even knowing that they are not so easily digested or appreciated by bureaucracies with other agendas.
Nothing symbolized the clash more than the iPads program, which was designed to make LA Unified, the second-biggest school district in the country, the undisputed leader in bringing disadvantaged children into the 21st century along with their better-heeled peers.
It was ambitious, if nothing else, a $1 billion buy that involved too many moving parts to play out glitch-free. Much like Republicans pouncing on the Obama administration for computer failures in the Affordable Care Act rollout, Deasy detractors used reports of stolen iPads, a few students hacking them and questions about parental responsibility to sabotage what might have been an honorable and worthwhile pursuit.
Yet Deasy bears some of the responsibility for the problems that arose, leading to a widespread perception that the rollout was too swift, ill-conceived and expensive. Once the board approved the program, much of its execution was carried out beyond public view, prompting the worst of Deasy detractors to suggest that he and Aquino were colluding with Apple and Pearson, the software company, on a kickback scheme.
Shrouded by all this are trends that any school district would hail as triumphant – rising test scores, lower suspension rates, safer schools, more campuses than ever wired for wireless. And maybe those patterns will continue.
But the budget for 2014-2015 remains a blur. Phase two of the iPad program is uncertain, issues with the union are unresolved. And, now, there may be a vacancy in the superintendent’s office.
Really, who could be surprised.