In Pasadena, they still remember--and admire--the way Ramon C. Cortines stood up to the Board of Education in the aftermath of a bitter fight over court-ordered school desegregation in the late 1970s.
With an archly conservative board majority attacking teachers as communists and banning books as blasphemous, meetings had to regularly be held in a junior high auditorium to accommodate crowds in the hundreds.
But Cortines, who on Thursday was tapped to become interim superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District in January, stood his ground, acting as a buffer between the board majority and the district's educators.
"He was under siege," said the Rev. George van Alstine, a prominent minister who later became a member of the Board of Education. "He wasn't going to let them micromanage the district around him."
Cortines was fired in 1978, when he refused to hire as second-in-command an administrator backed by the board. He remembers it as a particularly painful low point in his 42-year career as an educator. Nonetheless, he ultimately triumphed: Less than two years later, he was brought back by a board from which voters had purged most of his opponents.
As superintendent, he said, "you are the No. 1 manager and educator in the district, and you have to provide leadership, and you have to expect leadership of those who work for you."
A Tough, Successful Educator
The Los Angeles Board of Education this week saw Cortines, now 67 and in no need of a job, demonstrate his toughness once again. When the board acted in a way contrary to his wishes, he said publicly that he would be happy to walk away. And that embarrassing possibility, sources said, forced the board to hire him, essentially on the terms he deemed necessary for a smooth transition.
After leaving Pasadena, Cortines went on to successfully command the school districts in San Jose and San Francisco and, briefly, New York. In each case, he faced enormous challenges--financial troubles, raising low expectations for students and winning over skeptical school boards.
Admirers call him a compassionate realist who generally is able to win over opponents with openness, candor and, if necessary, sheer toughness and canny maneuvering.
His overriding concerns, they say, have been helping all children maximize their potential for learning and pressing schools to raise their expectations.
"He cares about kids, he just feels it in his heart," said James W. Guthrie, who as an education professor at UC Berkeley watched Cortines closely during his stint in San Francisco.
In addition, he said, Cortines "is this no-nonsense guy, who doesn't have to kowtow to anyone . . . and can speak truth to power like few others can."
Although Guthrie, now at Vanderbilt University, questioned whether Cortines has what it takes to achieve long-term improvement in a school district, he said his skills are particularly well-suited to serving on an interim basis.
"If it's truly a cleanup operation to get the district ready for a long-term strategy, then I think he's excellent for this," Guthrie said.
Dan Kelly, a member of the San Francisco Board of Education who was first elected during Cortines' tenure, agreed.
"He would not allow it to occur for schools to open without books in place, teachers hired and schools ready on time," Kelly said. "That kind of administrative stuff is really his forte, getting the small details taken care of and making sure everyone understands that the basic aspects of their jobs are very important."
Experienced With Asbestos Abatement
On the same day Cortines was hired it was announced that students may be being exposed to potentially cancer-causing asbestos through hundreds of construction projects in the district. Cortines faced asbestos crises when he began in San Francisco, in 1986, and then again when he went to New York, in 1993.
In San Francisco, he formed an asbestos council that included teachers, parents, administrators, health department representatives and activists on the issue. Characteristically moderate, Cortines pressed for a solution that required the rebuilding of only one high school and repairs elsewhere.
In New York, he was handed an asbestos abatement program that was behind schedule. He delayed the opening of school 11 days until he was assured the schools were safe.
In each case, he won accolades for reaching out to everyone concerned to find a solution. He also was highly visible, showing up at schools unannounced, dropping in on student performances and wading into crowds of teachers.
Everywhere he has gone, he has had a policy of trying to return calls the same day to any parent or teacher with a concern. In San Francisco, for example, he routinely arrived at his desk around 6 a.m. and for the next hour answered the telephone himself--speaking with anyone who dialed in.