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L.A. Unified schools' chief works for district supplier

Supt. Ramon C. Cortines sits on the board of Scholastic Inc., which supplies a district reading program. Officials say he is not involved in decisions pertaining to the publisher.

February 12, 2010|By Howard Blume

Los Angeles schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines earned more than $150,000 last year for serving on the board of one of the nation's leading educational publishing companies, a firm with more than $16 million in contracts with the school district over the last five years.

Scholastic Inc. provides the main reading intervention curriculum for the Los Angeles Unified School District, a program that is part of the company's fast-growing educational technology business.

Cortines has disclosed his relationship with the New York-based company, and officials say he has avoided any decisions on Scholastic contracts.

Cortines' role, however, has generated criticism among some former senior officials and current employees. They said the corporate tie creates an appearance of impropriety.

"My objection is the perception it creates and the door it opens for others to do the same thing," said former school board member Marlene Canter, who sits on the city ethics commission and who said she admires Cortines.

Board members, including Canter, never examined his outside employment in the rush to elevate the respected Cortines from the district's No. 2 position after a board majority suddenly decided to replace predecessor David Brewer in 2008, she said.

No current board members expressed concerns.

"Ray has done all the proper things he has to do" in terms of disclosure, school board President Monica Garcia said. "It's never been something that's been hidden. I don't know what is interesting here." Echoing others, she added: "I never met a person with more integrity than Ray Cortines."

Cortines has recused himself from dealing with matters that might involve Scholastic, said chief academic officer Judy Elliott.

"Mr. Cortines has never been involved or part of any instructional decision about any intervention program," she said.

Abdicating major instructional decisions in the nation's second-largest school district is an unsatisfactory solution, said former school board member Jeff Horton, because the superintendent is ultimately responsible even when he delegates.

And if Cortines isn't involved, he should be, Horton said, given the importance of addressing poor reading skills among tens of thousands of students.

Cortines said he performs his duties with Scholastic Inc. as needed after work, on weekends and on vacation days. The board meets in New York about five times a year for one or two days. Cortines sometimes participates by phone.

For 2009, Cortines' compensation from Scholastic totaled $151,186, according to filings with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. Of that, $82,500 was in fees earned or cash payments; $36,042 in stock awards, and $32,644 in option awards. His compensation for 2008 was $165,785; for 2007, $122,406. Older filings did not list individual board member compensation.

Cortines joined the district in April 2008 at a salary of $250,000. He became superintendent the following December, voluntarily retaining the same salary in recognition, he said, of the district's budget problems. Cortines' wage is below average for a large school system, according to the Council of the Great City Schools.

Outside earnings are "not uncommon at all," said Michael Casserly, the council's executive director. He did not provide specific examples, but said "many districts allow it as a way to supplement the compensation of their superintendents."

But school superintendents in Chicago, Miami, Long Beach and Charlotte, N.C., are prohibited from receiving compensation from a vendor. Nor would it be allowed in New York City, unless approved by a city conflict-of-interest board, said officials in those systems.

For Scholastic, Cortines serves on more subcommittees than any other member on the 10-person board: audit; human resources and compensation; nominating and governance (which he chairs); strategic planning and stock grant.

Cortines' prime asset is "his long history as an educator," said Kyle Good, Scholastic's vice president for corporate communications. "Dr. Cortines does not participate in any conversation or event that might take place in LAUSD that could involve Scholastic."

Cortines said he presumed that his value to Scholastic has been his "management and business skills having dealt with large budgets and reorganizations in difficult times."

A lobbyist for another publisher noted that Scholastic benefits from Cortines' title as well as from his reputation.

Scholastic, the U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter series, dominates the domestic school book fair and book club business as both a publisher and distributor. The company also develops and markets books and software for instruction, including the federally sanctioned Read 180, which the district mandated for high schools in 2007.

Previously, the district had relied primarily on a reading program from a Scholastic competitor. In the fall, district officials expanded the intervention program to 58 middle schools with large numbers of poor readers.

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