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Cortines faces challenging tasks as he steps in behind departing superintendent

File: Then L.A. Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines attends a school meeting in April 2009.
File: Then L.A. Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines attends a school meeting in April 2009.
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Educator Ramon Cortines takes over as Los Angeles Unified superintendent with experience that positions him well as head of a large school district, but with a long task list and a history that has some questioning his selection.

Cortines, 82, starts Monday when Superintendent John Deasy steps down and assumes the role of a district advisor on special assignment through December.

Beset by critics, some on the school board that employs him, and facing mounting problems that painted his administration as dysfunctional, Deasy negotiated a separation agreement to retreat from the job he held for three and a half years.

Following behind a superintendent leaving in the midst of controversy won't be new for Cortines. Each of the previous two times Cortines has taken on L.A. Unified’s top job, it’s been after the contentious ouster of a superintendent.

In 2009, he steered the district  through the tumultuous buyout of Superintendent David Brewer’s contract. And in 1999, he stepped in after a split school board voted to remove Ruben Zacarias.

This time, Cortines may be in place for a long haul as the board searches for a permanent superintendent. There is little desire among school board members to send the district into more turmoil with another swift change at the top. 

Cortines has worked with several members of the school board and has known them for many years. Unlike Deasy whose management style caused friction with the board, Cortines is expected to take a more collaborative approach.

The school board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a contract that would give Cortines an annual salary of $300,000 with no benefits. He would "serve at the pleasure of the Board," a district official said by email.

In a recent KPCC interview before his appointment, Cortines talked about a superintendent's relationship with the board: “I do think the superintendent has to to look at the school board as their boss. They were elected by the people,” he said.

Cortines' credentials are solid: in an education career that spanned more than five decades, Cortines led the school districts in Pasadena, San Francisco, and New York City and worked in the U.S. Department of Education under the Clinton Administration.

He has built a reputation as a no-frills, transparent, call-it-like-he-sees-it administrator. “He’s a traditional, old-fashioned superintendent,” said former United Teachers Los Angeles President John Perez.

“In the old days, the superintendent pretty much got what he wanted because he told the school board what he needed and the bureaucracy was beholden to the person," Perez said. “They’re not secretive, you knew that he was going to totally defend the district and totally defend the bureaucracy.”

He put his signature on one of the district’s major reform initiatives, the Public School Choice program, that turned over administration of dozens of campus to outside groups and localized their administration.

Delaine Eastin, a former California superintendent of schools, first met Cortines when she was chair of the State Assembly Education Committee and he was chief of San Francisco’s school district in the late 1980s.  She remembers him as a tough administrator.

“His flaws may be that he’s -- he can be a little brusque with people. He can be dismissive if he doesn’t agree with you. And, you know, sometimes our enemies have good ideas,” Eastin said.

In 2010, Cortines came under fire when the Los Angeles Times revealed that he earned $150,000 by serving on the board of a large publishing company with $16 million in contracts with L.A. Unified.

Then, a relationship with a male subordinate, Scot Graham, led to a sexual discrimination lawsuit filed against Cortines, which was later dismissed. A second lawsuit against the school district by Graham was withdrawn earlier this year.

Graham said in an email to KPCC: "I have always wished the best for the school district and wish Mr. Cortines success again in his job as Superintendent." But Graham said the "institutional failures" around gay employees at the district, including those who are married, remain unaddressed.

Some on the L.A. Unified Facebook page were dismayed that the board would reinstall Cortines as superintendent. One poster, Crystal Duron, said: "And who in their right minds would put someone back in power that not only failed miserably at the job but is morally corrupt as well? This is NOT ok."

At the top of Cortines’ task list will be the issues that contributed to Deasy's undoing: the rollout of the iPad program that had raised questions about the superintendent's influence in the selection of vendors and the botched management of the student data system that caused major problems with class scheduling and prompted a court to order the state to intervene at Jefferson High.

Cortines also takes the helm of L.A. Unified at a key moment in labor relations. Superintendent Deasy’s negotiation of the massive teachers union contract slowed to a crawl this year. Union members say Cortines can speed things up.

“I think it’s good for the employees because he is a guy you can negotiate with,” said Perez.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the superintendent's separation agreement.