Back in July, Dropout Nation surmised that Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy would likely end up leaving the top job by the end of the school year. With the American Federation of Teachers’ local, United Teachers Los Angeles, effectively winning back control of the district’s board after this year’s election, and with traditionalist (and longtime Deasy foe) Richard Vladovic taking the helm as board president, the superintendent was going to have a tough time pursuing his moderate reform agenda. By the time Dropout Nation reached its conclusions, Vladovic and his allies had already begun doing all they could to frustrate Deasy’s efforts, including pushing for a three-year plan to increase teacher salaries and hire more teachers that favors their AFT patron (and effectively putting the kibosh on Deasy’s effort to move toward weighted student funding approach to budgeting that would hand more dollars to schools serving poor and minority children while allowing principals to manage their own budgets). Since then, Vladovic and company have ratcheted up the pressure on Deasy with moves such as replacing board member (and Deasy ally) Tamar Galatzan as head of the district’s budget committee with Bennett Kayser, whose loyalty is first and foremost to the AFT.
So it isn’t surprising that rumors are now coming out that Deasy may either hand in his resignation by this coming January or end up being sacked by the board as early as Tuesday after his latest performance review. Sure, reformers in the City of Angels and Los Angeles County, along with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, are demanding that the board retain Deasy. But because reformers didn’t win seats during this year’s board elections, they have little leverage that they can use on Deasy’s behalf, either to keep him in the job or help him advance his agenda. The fact AFT local president Warren Fletcher has already issued a call for “new leadership”, along with the district’s troubled roll-out of its ambitious effort to equip all students with Apple iPads in place of textbooks, makes Deasy’s departure all but a certainty.
Given the dysfunction on L.A. Unified’s board and the unwillingness of the board majority to advance systemic reform that will benefit children in its care, it’s unlikely that the district can replace Deasy with a suitable successor. Which is another reason why it is time to break apart L..A. Unified altogether.
Certainly Deasy is not nearly the strong reformer those in the movement, both in L.A. and nationwide, like to think him to be. After all, his tenure at the helm of L.A. Unified has been filled with has weak moves such as striking a deal with the AFT on a teacher evaluation plan that does little to actually measure the performance of teachers based on their success with the students they instruct in classrooms. Given that Deasy has gone from working with a reform-oriented board led by Monica Garcia to one dominated by traditionalists such as Vladovic (and that reformers have struggled with providing strong and consistent advocacy), it is understandable why Deasy has taken a more moderate stance what the district actually needs. But in light of his current predicament, Deasy would have been better off going full bore on advancing reform.
At the same time, he has proven skillful at using what cover he gets from reform advocates to overhaul teacher quality, expand school choice, and undertake other moves that are starting to help L.A.’s children. He deserves praise for working with Parent Power activists and families looking to either take over or push for the overhaul of failing schools in the district such as 24th Street Elementary and Weingard Elementary. And Deasy deserves admiration for his willingness to side step traditionalists on L.A. Unified’s board (with the implicit support of Garcia and other reformers) — including backing the successful lawsuit filed against the district by a group of Southern California families organized by activist Alice Callaghan (with backing from the school reform group EdVoice) over the district’s failure to use student performance data in teacher evaluations as required under the Golden State’s Stull Act.
But it has been clear for a while that Deasy would never get much done so long as he has to work with Vladovic and his allies who now control L.A. Unified’s board — and not just because of the conflict of visions and ideologies. Vladovic’s reputation as a hot-head who abuses both his own staffers and that of Deasy’s has come out in the open over the past few months a a former staffer accused him of episodes of harassment and meddling in operational affairs beyond what is called for in his governance role. Vladovic all but affirmed these and other accusations earlier this month when he apologized for his misbehavior and said that he would seek treatment for his anger issues. But the fact that the board has so far let Vladovic off the hook for his misbehavior (and may not likely approve an effort by rival Galatzan to have him censured) means that he and his allies will likely subject Deasy, his staffers, and the rest of L.A. Unified’s already-dysfunctional bureaucracy to even more grief. Which is likely to be perfectly fine as far as the AFT and other traditionalists looking to stop future reforms are concerned.
Meanwhile Vladovic and his allies have been building a case against Deasy’s continued employment. The superintendent’s performance review this Tuesday comes amid constant sparring over the district’s future direction. Earlier this month, Deasy foe Steve Zimmer fumed at L.A. Unified’s chief financial officer, Megan Riley, after she presented a cost-benefit analysis that showed that the board majority’s feckless spending plans — including the hiring of additional teachers, new rounds of salary increases, and increases in the number of classes that don’t involve helping kids improve their literacy and numeracy — would cost at least $1.2 billion over a three-year period, a burden the district can ill-afford. Deasy’s key staffers, tired of the meddling from the board, are starting to move to greener pastures; this includes Jaime Aquino, who oversees the district’s curricula efforts (including implementation of Common Core reading and math standards), who announced his departure last month. Add in Fletcher’s threats that that the AFT may mount a work stoppage similar to that done last year by its sister local in Chicago if the district doesn’t give in to its demands for salary hikes, and it is clear that Deasy will have to leave on his own in order to avoid being given walking papers.
Replacing Deasy wouldn’t exactly be an easy task even under the best of circumstances. Unlike New York City, where the traditional district’s status as a department of the main city government controlled by the mayor provides for stability in leadership, L.A. Unified’s board governance structure (one typical for most big-city districts) makes the superintendent’s job inherently unstable. As seen in the case of Deasy, a superintendent chosen by one board can end up immediately falling out of favor with the next.
But the current board’s dysfunction, especially with a intemperate leader such as Vladovic at the helm, makes running the nation’s second-largest district even more unattractive than usual, both for potential candidates of a reform mindset as well as for traditionalist types. The fact that the board majority is unified more by their general disdain for Deasy and his agenda than by any philosophical agreements adds additional uncertainty. Zimmer, a former Teach For America recruit, has a penchant for going his own way that is as frustrating to traditionalists as it is to reformers; this independence streak or indecisiveness (depending on where you sit) is why he garnered no support for his bid last July against Vladovic to become L.A. Unified’s board president. Monica Ratliff, who now occupies the seat once held by reformer (and now L.A. city councilwoman) Nury Martinez, has been as much a critic of the AFT’s defense of seniority-based protections for laggard and criminally-abusive teachers has she has been a defender of the traditionalist thinking in other aspects.
One can imagine the majority splintering into two camps once Deasy hands in his resignation, making it difficult to choose his replacement. It also means that anyone who succeeds Deasy as superintendent would spend more time trying to please each of the players on the board — including Vladovic and his aforementioned anger management issues — than running district operations. This is especially problematic in light of L.A. Unified’s myriad academic woes. While Deasy and immediate predecessor Ramon Cortines helped reduce the percentage of fourth-graders reading Below Basic (as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress) by five percentage points between 2009 and 2011, 55 percent of L.A. Unified fourth-graders (now seventh-graders) were functionally illiterate. Meanwhile L.A. Unified is also struggling to provide kids with the college-preparatory curricula they need to do well in higher education, with just 37 percent of the district’s graduating Class of 2012 having taken courses that prepared them to do well in the colleges operated by the University of California and California State University, according to data from the Golden State’s Department of Education.
Meanwhile Deasy’s successor would be expected by Vladovic and company to do the bidding of the AFT local. But given the district’s struggles, along with the overhang of the criminal abuse scandal involving former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt (who was allowed by the district to damage the children he taught), no responsible superintendent can do that. If anything, that person would have to continue Deasy’s efforts to overhaul teacher evaluations and performance management, which the district has long failed to do well; 40 percent of veteran teachers and 70 percent of new hires were evaluated by the district during the 2009-2010 school year, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. But undertaking such an effort means battling with an AFT local dead set against even the reform-light concepts such as peer review panels that most traditionalists generally support — and whose influence over the district’s board has only become stronger. And that’s before one considers the notorious intransigence of L.A. Unified’s bureaucracy, which has historically quashed anything beyond superficial attempts to improve student achievement.
Beyond the academic and operational woes facing Deasy’s possible successor, there are the financial problems plaguing the district. L.A. Unified struggled this school year to fill a $450 million shortfall; it depended on $202 million in one-time dollars just to make ends meet. It faces a $350 million shortfall for 2014-2015, thanks in part to healthcare deals with the AFT and other unions under which the district bears allthe costs; L.A. Unified expects to spend$780 million on healthcare for the coming year. Add in the $4 billion in unfunded retired school employee healthcare costs that must be paid down in the next 17 to 30 years, and the portion of the state Teachers Retirement System’s $87 billion pension deficit, and the district can be considered on the brink of insolvency. With taxpayers in Los Angeles and the 31 other cities served by L.A. Unified struggling with the pension woes of their city governments (and the woes of the state as a whole), L.A. Unified can’t hope for more help, much less $1.2 billion for the spending spree Vladovic and his cronies want to undertake.
In all honesty, Deasy is as good as L.A. Unified could get to run its operations. Vladovic and his allies won’t find anyone nearly as good willing to take on the dysfunction that plagues the district. It is definitely time for reformers to mount another effort to ditch the traditionalists on the board over the next few years. And it is also time for all to take up Dropout Nation‘s standing advice on what to do with L.A. Unified: Break it up altogether and move away from the traditional district model at the heart of its problems overall.