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Deal Unravels on Interim Chief for L.A. District

Education: Ramon Cortines withdraws his name as Ruben Zacarias' successor, calling school system 'the most dysfunctional' in America. Announcement stuns board.


A bid to negotiate an end to Los Angeles Unified's 3-week-old power struggle appears to have failed, leading Ramon C. Cortines to say Wednesday that he is no longer interested in temporarily filling the district's top job.

"I have withdrawn my name from consideration as of this morning," said Cortines, 67, renowned for navigating school districts through troubled times.

Cortines broke the news to Genethia Hayes, the president of the district's board of education, in a telephone call Wednesday morning. It followed two days during which the former superintendent of Pasadena, San Francisco and New York schools had tried to draft an agreement to allow Ruben Zacarias, the current superintendent, to stay on during a transition period.

Such an agreement would let Zacarias retire with dignity, cool the anti-school board fervor in the community and give Cortines time to gain trust and focus on numerous substantive issues--rather than having to fight political ones. Accordingly, the deal quickly gained widespread support among Latino political leaders and board members.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 5, 1999 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
L.A. Unified crisis--An article in Thursday's Times incorrectly stated that Gloria Molina, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and Antonia Hernandez, executive director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, were involved in asking Ramon C. Cortines to serve as interim superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Even so, the plan encountered problems, some fundamental, some having to do with the personalities and personal circumstances of those involved.

Some board members objected to Zacarias staying on, even for only a few months. Cortines reportedly divulged Monday night that he wanted to advise Zacarias, not replace him, and work only part-time.

Some board members reportedly felt they had been misled about his intentions. But Cortines said he too came to feel betrayed. He had urged Hayes to delay any key decisions while the deal percolated. Instead, the board finalized a contract Tuesday with Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller, who has been at the center of the leadership battle.

The rapidly changing situation provides a clear example of how awkward and politically messy the board's effort to resolve the leadership crisis has become. In addition, the apparent loss of a highly regarded Latino candidate no doubt will be seen in the community as another example of the board's insensitivity.

It also casts doubt on any hope that the district might soon emerge from the chaos that has all but paralyzed it, especially with no new superintendent in sight.

In an interview, Cortines called the district the "most dysfunctional district in America."

News of Cortines' withdrawal caught board members by surprise, and they reacted with shock and disappointment. Sources said that, even after they heard the news, they refused to give up hope that a compromise could bring Cortines aboard in some advisory capacity.

Meanwhile, the board was supposed to meet today, ostensibly to finalize a buyout of Zacarias and install Cortines. But given the events Wednesday, it was unclear what, if anything, might be done.

Zacarias, who had been in close contact with Cortines since Monday afternoon, learned of his change of heart Wednesday morning. "Ramon called me and said, 'Ruben, I'm tired of being jerked around by the board,' " Zacarias recalled. "It's very unfortunate, but I can appreciate his frustration."

State Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), a supporter of Zacarias who has been investigating the possibility of having the state take over the district, was even more blunt.

"These knuckleheads already received a vote of no confidence from the state Little Hoover Commission," he said. "Now, they have received a vote of no confidence from their own handpicked person."

Moving Quickly to Remove Zacarias

Board members Wednesday defended the need to move quickly in removing Zacarias and said they would recover from the loss of Cortines.

"We just have to find somebody else," Caprice Young said. "There are a number of people I think ought to be in line next, but I don't want to surface any of those names because I don't want to happen to them what happened to Cortines."

Some school district officials suggested that Cortines had attempted to keep Zacarias on board after succumbing to pressure from Latino community leaders and lawmakers. But Cortines said that was "absolutely not true."

"If anything, in my last conversation with some of them last evening, it was them encouraging me to do everything possible to help," he said.

Cortines said in an interview Tuesday night that his plan would have seen Zacarias leaving his job by January, with Cortines serving as an advisor until then and as an interim superintendent after that.

As part of that pact, Miller, the ex-school board member and attorney who was elevated Oct. 12 to a position of authority over all aspects of the district, would fill a reduced role as chief of facilities, finance and school safety. Miller had been promoted by a four-member board majority that had lost confidence in Zacarias' management.

Cortines wanted the school board to delay for a couple of days any action on Miller's contract or any other matter related to Zacarias.

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