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Mayor to Hire School District Envoy

Ramon C. Cortines, a former superintendent, will be Villaraigosa's education advisor and representative before the LAUSD board.

July 25, 2006|Duke Helfand and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

Moving to bolster his sway over Los Angeles' embattled public school system, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will name former schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines today to the post of deputy mayor for education, youth and families.

Cortines, a veteran educator who has led some of the nation's largest and most politically volatile school districts, including Los Angeles Unified for a brief stint, is expected to serve as an important buffer between Villaraigosa, the school board and the teachers union.

Cortines would not say in an interview whether he supports state legislation that would give Villaraigosa a measure of control over the school system. But he insisted that any takeover must be a collaborative effort involving the warring sides.

"We're poised to take the next step. Instead of taking it in a fractured way, I think that we need to come together," said Cortines, 74. "I think we all need to compromise a little."

Cortines' hiring was interpreted by many in the education community as a smart strategic move for Villaraigosa, who has waged an often ugly campaign over the last year to wrest control of the school system from the elected school board. The mayor plans to formally announce the appointment at a South Los Angeles preschool today.

Cortines is widely regarded as a respected educator -- he has run school districts in New York, San Francisco, San Jose and Pasadena. His selection was cautiously welcomed by some school district leaders who believe he can bridge the political chasm opened by the conflict.

School board President Marlene Canter said she thinks Cortines "will bring some depth to the conversation" over the schools, adding: "I have a lot of respect for the work Ramon Cortines has done. If his goal is to create a partnership, this will be very helpful."

In his new position, Cortines will represent the mayor before L.A. Unified and other civic institutions, including community colleges, universities and corporate and philanthropic groups.

He also will be Villaraigosa's top educational advisor, replacing Carolyn Webb de Macias, who is returning to her job as vice president of external relations at USC after a year's sabbatical in the mayor's office.

Some educators speculated that Villaraigosa may have hired Cortines to install him eventually as superintendent when Supt. Roy Romer retires later this year -- a notion that Cortines and the mayor's office sought to dispel.

Such a scenario would be possible if Villaraigosa wins the Legislature's approval next month for a bill providing him with some control over the school district, including veto power over the hiring and firing of superintendents.

Cortines said he had no plans to succeed Romer, at least for now, saying he removed his name from the board's ongoing search Saturday, once he decided to go to work for Villaraigosa. Cortines said that the mayor persuaded him that he could best serve Los Angeles from City Hall.

"I believe, as citizens, we have to step up to the plate when we are asked," Cortines said of the post, which will pay him about $130,000 a year. "This is not a job for someone who wants to put L.A. Unified on their resume."

Cortines had previously expressed interest in the superintendent's job, saying he would not formally apply but would accept the post if offered by the mayor and the school board.

Whether or not he stays in City Hall, experts said that Cortines' experience in New York -- where he had to balance Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's demands for a voice in education issues with the power of the school board -- qualifies him to manage the complicated power-sharing arrangement called for by Villaraigosa's district reform plan. Cortines frequently clashed with Giuliani, ultimately resigning after two years.

"He's just a highly respected senior statesman," said Stanford education professor Michael Kirst, who has written extensively about mayoral control of schools.

Villaraigosa's chief of staff, Robin Kramer, said the mayor picked Cortines because of his knowledge of large urban school systems, but noted that Cortines will have a broad portfolio.

Aside from advising the mayor on L.A. Unified, he will serve as a liaison to city departments and commissions that focus on children and families, including the Recreation and Parks Department and the city's library system.

"The mayor has articulated a view and pathway for schools to improve," Kramer said. "Ray shares that philosophy. It is definitely one which, at its very core, rests on the notion that parents, teachers, educators, the union and businesses have to be involved."

Cortines began his career as a teacher in Northern California in the mid-1950s. In addition to his school district positions, he has served as adjunct professor at Harvard and Brown universities. He currently serves as a member of the board of the J. Paul Getty Trust and as an education consultant to the Broad Foundation.

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