Last November, Ramon Cortines took the helm of the troubled Los Angeles Unified School District with a mandate for change. Superintendent Ruben Zacarias had been forced out and district officials were desperate for someone to improve conditions at the LAUSD. Cortines was initially reluctant to take the position, but when the Board of Education voted unanimously to appoint him, the 67-year-old administrator couldn't turn down the challenge.

A veteran of the segregation wars in Pasadena, San Francisco's troubled district and even New York, Cortines thought he was through with schools. But five months after being appointed, he finds himself leading the district through what some call its most monumental change ever. Later this year, the LAUSD will be restructured into 11 mini-districts, each with its own superintendent, upending the bloated bureaucracy that many blame for the district's woes. And while Cortines is initiating the change, he's not going to stick around to carry the plan through. In July, he turns over the reins to a new superintendent, and no matter how much district officials beg him, Cortines insists nothing will get him to stick around. He's got other plans.

The interim superintendent recently talked to the Business Journal about the monumental changes ahead for the LAUSD, and why sometimes speed is more important than studies on the best methods for reform.

Question: You've been working on reforming the Los Angeles Unified School District for almost six months now. Are you on track?

Answer: I feel we're making progress. This is like dealing with a giant elephant. I believe I'm beginning to see the elephant get up. And it is my hope, based on what I've been able to contribute, that the new super will be able to get the elephant to stand.

I'm pretty organized. When people first saw the timeline they laughed and didn't believe it. We're on a fast timeline between now and when I leave. I think that not having a lot of time (to study this reform) has been good for us.

Q: In what way?

A: I think when you have too much time, there's too much contemplation, too much discussion. Nothing is ever perfect. I think people work better under pressure. I certainly know I do. I'm goal-oriented, and I think everything we do in this district has to be focused on the goal of improving academic achievement. There's such a dichotomy in the system. You have the best schools in the nation here; there's just not enough of them.

Q: That's not how most people think of the LAUSD.

A: I think we've tended to focus on the negative. I understand that, it's human nature. But I think this district has a lot to celebrate.

Q: Without that focus on the negative, do you think there would have been the motivation to make changes?

A: For me, there would have been. For the system, no. The system is made up of people. I think that you become critical, but not constructively so. Or you give up. Or you become complacent with the status quo.

Q: Back in November, you were quoted as saying that people were going to cringe when you told them how fast you wanted to move.

A: People want to study things to death. And yet when it comes to research and study, we haven't used what we know to improve the delivery of instruction. This is a dynamic, fluid thing when you're dealing with this many students and employees. Regardless of the time frame, there are going to be changes that need to be made (to the plan).

We're able to move fast because I'm older than God. I've taught at every level, been an administrator in so many diverse districts that have all shown improvement and have all been better. You mobilize a team of people, you motivate. Leadership isn't always out in front. Sometimes it's behind.

Q: You're going to be gone at the end of June. Do you feel you'll be leaving a system in place to carry out your vision?

A: I do not believe organizational change should depend on one individual. So what I've attempted to do is use the people here. I didn't hire Arthur Andersen to come up with a plan. I met with staff every day at 6:30 a.m. to hammer out the outline of this plan. On the implementation, I've set up the strategy room with the staff that's going to be here, the staff that's respected.

There is an energy out there. Some of the administrators, I'm rocking their boats a little, but I think it's good for them. But I do worry. I don't figure this (plan for change) is mine, but I've never worked so hard in my life. This is a much more difficult job than I ever had with desegregation in Pasadena. New York was a piece of cake compared to here.

Q: Do you feel overwhelmed?

A: No. I just hope there is the will at every level to improve academic achievement. I've been trying to make the case for it. Even with the union contracts, there has to be an increase in salary, but there has to be an incentive package for helping young people improve academic performance.

Q: On the subject of the teacher's contract, there's a big gulf between what the union wants and what the district is offering. Are you concerned about a strike in the middle of all this change?

A: I'm always concerned about work stoppage. I think, though, that if you talk to the unions, they'll tell you that I meet with them on an ongoing basis. Because we disagree on some things, I don't allow that to keep us from talking to each other.

You see, I don't believe negotiations have to be adversarial. That doesn't mean we agree on everything and we're a happy little group sitting around the table having tea and crumpets, but there is a respect for (each other's) point of view. I am asking the teachers to do more than they have ever been asked to do before. And I believe that has to be paid for.

Q: Teachers are asking for a 21 percent raise vs. the 6 percent increase the district is offering, and they object to merit pay. Does that really help your cause?

A: I don't believe in individual merit pay. I think we would all be happy to create some incentive package for entire schools instead of individual teachers. I think the profession has to understand that we're moving toward merit pay one way or the other. There are already states that are legislating merit pay. Everyone thinks teachers should be making more money, but it should be a quid pro quo. You can't get something for nothing. They have to show progress.

Q: How do you measure that progress?

A: Well, I think the California Index (a measure of school quality that ranks schools based on test scores) is a good way. We have 192 schools that are at the bottom of the barrel by that measure. I expect progress based on that index for next year. Because some of those schools are so low, they can make the progress very small.

I do not think we have set high enough standards for our students. We have excused them because they are English-language learners, because of poverty, because of the illiteracy of parents, because of projects where they live, because of single-parent families, all of those things. Those are all issues but they are not excuses.

Q: The first line of defense against academic ills is the teachers, yet half of all teachers hired in the LAUSD are unqualified. What can be done about that?

A: Well, I think the new salary is going to help. (Starting next year, fully credentialed starting teachers will earn $37,000, up from $32,569.) It's going to take us a while. That's a hard nut to crack. I think that we've got to have some incentives. I've been asking staff, "How do you develop incentives for teachers that are not certified to get their credentials faster? How do we help them?"

Q: Another important element in the redistricting plan is the 11 new superintendents who need to be hired in the next month. With such a short time frame, how do you get the best people and be sure they are in favor of radical change?

A: I can't guarantee that we will. I can tell you that the people who are going to do the selection in the individual districts have to commit to a serious process. They can't just come in one day and say, "OK, we're going to interview the clients that are lined up." Many of those people are parents and community members, and they don't want the same old, same old. They want people who are really good. I also think we're making an effort to spread the net nationally. And our salary is competitive. It is my hope we will attract the best people, both internally and externally.

I also think that for the first time, it's not based on whose friend is who.

Q: How do you make sure the next superintendent shares your vision and enthusiasm for change?

A: I don't know. I hope the board wants somebody to build on what we've begun, because the plan isn't perfect. That's why we set up the Corrective Action Team (to monitor the plan and make changes when necessary). When people have concerns about aspects of the plan that aren't working in specific districts, they can go to the team.

Q: It would be easy if everyone in the district was in favor of your plan but there have been grumblings from the rank and file. How are you dealing with internal resistance?

A: One of the skills a superintendent has to have is tenaciousness. I've been here five months going on five years. We've done so much in the past five months. I'm getting things started and making sure it's in place and that the work will continue.

Q: Do you think what you've put in place is strong enough to outbalance any subversives within the district?

A: That's a risk. People better understand that this district is not going to stay the same, one way or the other. It's legislatively going to change from board policy or it's going to change because of dynamic leadership. It's never going to go back to the way it used to be.

Q: Any thoughts about staying around?

A: None. I don't think you can play a head trip with yourself. I said I would come for a certain time and do certain things.

Q: You mentioned that the district is an elephant just getting up, but there's an elephant within the district: Belmont.

A: That's one of my disappointments. I said initially it should be opened. I see how overcrowded Belmont is and I know the history of how this area has been neglected. If someone would give me the money to mitigate and test and the $55 million to finish the building so it wouldn't have to come from the general fund, I'd open that school.

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