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Monday, Oct 2, 2023

Our view: School

Ramon Cortines, the interim superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District, does not like to stand still. An outspoken critic of bloated, glacial bureaucracies, he was known for criticizing administrative “tea parties” while heading up the San Francisco district, poking fun at administrators who “like to play school” instead of actually getting anything done.

Cortines certainly can’t be accused of holding any tea parties. After officially taking over the L.A. district in mid-January, he has spearheaded the creation of a sweeping overhaul plan that will completely restructure the district. Under the plan, approved by the school board April 11, the LAUSD will be split into 11 subdistricts, each one headed by a local superintendent who will report to a super-superintendent overseeing the entire existing LAUSD.

Cortines and the school board are certainly to be congratulated for prodding LAUSD’s ossified bureaucracy into action, and finally taking steps toward real reform. But one has to wonder whether the speed at which this process is being undertaken is really what’s best for the district.

The entire restructuring including the hiring of the 12 new superintendents is slated for completion by July, when Cortines will step down. Each of the new subdistricts will contain between 50,000 and 77,000 students, meaning that if they were separate entities they would each rank among the biggest school districts in the nation.

About a dozen major school districts around the country that are the size of the LAUSD’s subdistricts are currently looking for superintendents, but these districts have dedicated on the order of six months to the search process; the LAUSD has dedicated about eight weeks. Because these sub-superintendents are being hired before the super-superintendent, the person in the top job will have no say over his or her own management team. Nor will the new superintendents have much say over the way the LAUSD is restructured, since at least an outline of that plan has already been approved.

And perhaps worst of all, it will be almost impossible to conduct an effective national personnel search in the space of two months. That means most of the new superintendents are likely to come from within the LAUSD an organization whose management has not exactly been getting high marks.

Cortines has done an excellent job of bringing a business-like approach to school administration, but there’s nothing business-like about the current mad rush. Few business owners would dream of setting aside only eight weeks to pick a CEO or a dozen CEOs. Setting artificial and unnecessarily tight deadlines is not the way to find the best people for the job. It guarantees, in fact, that the district will have to settle for the best people it can find within its time frame, not necessarily the best people available.

The LAUSD board should know better than anybody the consequences of rushing into a decision without adequate study or information. That is, after all, how the Belmont catastrophe happened. While the Cortines plan indeed looks like a strong step in the right direction particularly with its emphasis on creating greater accountability by removing layers of management between the overall superintendent and regional chiefs it is being implemented at such lightning speed, with so little input, that it’s hard to imagine all the bases really being covered.

The political pressure on the board to implement real reform is enormous, and Cortines has a very limited amount of time to create the framework for a new district, so it’s easy to understand why this plan is being rushed through. But a reform that hasn’t been properly studied or analyzed might in the end turn out to be worse than no reform at all.

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