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The long good-bye: Cortines bids farewell (again) to LA Unified

Mike Szymanski | December 14, 2015

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CortinesFarewell2This is the final week of school before winter break for the LA Unified school district, and it’s the remaining few days in office for Superintendent Ramon Cortines as he completes his final farewell tour.

His last full workday was last Friday, and it included an emergency meeting with the Southern California Gas Company to get the latest update on a gas leak in Porter Ranch and how it affects the safety of two nearby schools. The safety of the students remains a primary concern for the 83-year-old superintendent, who is bidding farewell to the district for the third time.

As a personal joke, Cortines created a “For Rent” sign and taped it to the outside of his office on the 24th floor of the Beaudry St. headquarters.

It’s been one year and one month since he took over after John Deasy resigned in a wave of controversy. Cortines bookended Deasy’s tenure, serving from 2009 to 2011 before retiring the first time. He also served in 2000 as superintendent before Roy Romer was named to the position.

Everyone knew Cortines had planned to leave by the end of this calendar year, and he pushed the school board to find a successor, a process now in the final stages. A week before school started this year, he gave his State-of-the-District speech at Garfield High School, also knowing it would be the last time he would address a large gathering of teachers and principals.

He used that time to talk directly to the school board—and to tease them–saying, “I’ve been blessed to share many unforgettable memories with them. Well some of them. I’m reminded of my many meetings with Mr. [Richard] Vladovic in his field office–the Starbucks in San Pedro.”

He recalled “Ms. [Mónica] Ratliff asking just one more question after we have tirelessly attempted to answer 20 before. Mr. [Steve] Zimmer meticulously answering every question in detail. Dr. [George] McKenna conveying his point with poetry and passion. And the cheerleader Ms. [Mónica] García, going ‘Hello people!’”

Cortines mentioned the two newly-elected board members Ref Rodriguez and Scott Schmerelson, and said, “Our diversity is what makes us strong, but our unity is what makes us unstoppable.”

Impromptu celebrations and good-byes have been going on all month. In late November just before the Thanksgiving break, he thanked the Instructional Technology Initiative Task Force and said he hopes to see it continue his vision of bringing technology to every student. Students surprised him with an hour-long singing tribute from various schools, including the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts. The school board took a break from a meeting to attend a reception for him.

Last week, Cortines visited the MiSiS computer team and thanked the members for their support and work. They, in turn, gave him a large wine goblet.

Cortines said to the team, “I am so pleased with the progress that’s been made in so many areas. It will never be perfect. Education is not perfect. It is constantly evolving. We have taken a lot of steps together this year, but there are a lot more rungs to go.”

He has given a few speeches in recent weeks calling for unity in the district and the board’s commitment to remember the students, one of the reasons Zimmer has referred to him as “America’s superintendent.”

When Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez spent a day with him last week before conducting a public interview, the writer noted, “This is a man who is beloved. To go through the building with this guy, they are star struck with smiles on their faces. They all want their time with Mr. Cortines.”

Cortines has been self-effacing in response to the appreciation and accolades but hasn’t missed a chance to poke fun at himself. When the lights in the school board meeting room recently flickered off, he quipped, “I did it; it’s an act of god.”

Then before last week’s board meeting he ended, he took the opportunity to leave the room quietly, without further attention.

He gave a final interview to Barbara Jones, a member of the district communications staff who used to cover him as a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News. He modestly shrugged off his accomplishments and told her, “I should have been put out to pasture long ago. There should have been people much younger than I am who were able to take the situation that we were in and say, ‘OK, we can fix it.’”

He said he wants to do a lot of reading when he retires and has a stack of books waiting in the library of his Pasadena home.

He sent a memo out on Friday noting that he will no longer be in his office due to his retirement, and asked all memos to go to Deputy Chief Superintendent Michelle King.

He ended with, “I also want to take this opportunity to say that serving the students and the LAUSD community has been one of the most challenging, enthralling, and most rewarding endeavors of my career. I take with me the wonderful memories of our schools, students and staff that I will reflect upon and smile about often.”

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