Amid persistent budget woes and increasing political pressure, Los Angeles schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines confirmed Thursday, his 78th birthday, that he plans to step down next spring as head of the nation's second-largest school system.
The news was not unexpected: Cortines had said he expected to serve two to three years when he took the job in December 2008, but this week he became somewhat more specific.
Cortines, whose high energy and endurance frequently outlasts that of his staff, had talked recently of being tired and said the political intrigues and public battles sometimes get to him: "Yes, I get frustrated. I am human."
Since joining the school system more than two years ago, initially as deputy superintendent, he has presided over relentless program cuts, salary reductions and layoffs caused by the state budget deficit and declining enrollment. He has also managed an array of school improvement efforts.
The financial crisis has engendered sometimes vitriolic rhetoric against Cortines from employees and parents. But most internal groups also express respect — sometimes grudging, sometimes effusive — for Cortines as someone who deeply understands education.
The more politically dangerous forces for Cortines include L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, education philanthropists such as Eli Broad, and some charter-school leaders and supporters who have powerful allies in both the mayor and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
All have fraying alliances at best with Cortines, although they acknowledge his strong administrative skills. They've concluded, however, that his pace of reform has been too slow or too incremental.
In an interview, Cortines took issue with those who "want to blow up the system."
"Why don't they improve the system?" he said. "That's what I've done."
Cortines also defended his pace.
"There isn't an area where we haven't raised the issue of accountability. You have somebody radical," he said of himself.
He personally oversaw changes at dozens of the lowest-performing schools. Employees have said they felt tremendous pressure, and some resent Cortines for it.
Last December, Cortines ordered all employees at Fremont High in South Los Angeles to reapply for their jobs. By July 1, more than half the teachers had voluntarily or unwillingly transferred out.
The mayor, for one, was not impressed.
"Let me tell you, there are a lot more failing schools in Los Angeles than one," he said at a news conference last month. "We've got to stop biting around the edges. We've got to be transformative."
On that day, Villaraigosa had joined critics who accused Cortines of watering down a process through which outside groups could take control of low-performing and new district campuses. The school board created the policy last year, but it fell to Cortines to carry it out.
On Thursday, Villaraigosa praised Cortines' "long and proud career serving students and families," said Deputy Mayor Joan Sullivan.
Cortines also has faced periodic pressure from school board President Monica Garcia, a Villaraigosa ally. Last year, she demanded that the superintendent give the mayor's education nonprofit a new campus without a formal review process, which rankled Cortines. More recently, Garcia "raised hell," as she put it, over enrollment issues at the new downtown arts high school.
The new regional district administrator, a subordinate to Cortines, recently sided with Garcia's concerns. He replaced the school's principal, Suzanne Blake, days after Cortines had said she could remain at the campus. Parents and school staff members are protesting Blake's removal.
All the same, Garcia has publicly described Cortines as the nation's best superintendent.
Garcia could not be reached Thursday, but other board members extolled Cortines, who previously led the school districts in New York City, San Francisco, San Jose and Pasadena. He also served as interim head of L.A. Unified for six months in 2000.
"I can't imagine going through the kind of budget cuts we have with anyone else at the helm," said Tamar Galatzan.
"It's good news for him and bad news for the district," said Richard Vladovic about Cortines' announcement.
"The superintendent has been irreplaceable and almost remarkable in his ability to provide a sense of steady, strong and stable leadership on every level," said Steve Zimmer.
Before he goes, Cortines said, he may restructure other schools using the Fremont model, which the teachers union has characterized as unfair and academically unsound.
Still, the union president expressed gratitude that Cortines had been in charge.
Cortines deftly handled a school board "that created chaos and confusion when it wasn't necessary," said A.J. Duffy, who heads United Teachers Los Angeles.
The superintendent said he would stay at least long enough to get the district through the next budget cycle, putting his departure in the March-through-June range. His contract runs through 2011 but can be terminated with 30 days' notice.
He has already moved out of his office, which he likened to a "mausoleum," for a space half the size. The new nameplate on the door is John Deasy, the deputy superintendent who begins work Aug. 1. Insiders have mentioned Deasy, a veteran superintendent, as a possible successor, although board members said they are keeping their options open.
Times staff writer Jason Song contributed to this report.