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John Deasy earns mostly high marks as the likely new L.A. schools superintendent

'L.A. is lucky to have him,' Education Secretary Arne Duncan says of the administrator who is expected to be hired this week as Ramon Cortines' successor.

January 10, 2011|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

The selection of John Deasy to lead the nation's second-largest school system, expected Tuesday, would give the Board of Education a leader who is eager to make sweeping changes and who has earned the respect of disparate and often warring forces in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Taking on some of the thorniest issues in the system as top deputy to Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, Deasy has worked productively with union leaders, key community activists, the mayor's office and charter school operators. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan weighed in last week, saying Deasy "has been a thoughtful, aggressive leader in public education."

"L.A. is lucky to have him," Duncan said.

After joining the school district in August, Deasy carved out a role heading a controversial effort to revamp teacher evaluations to include the use of student test score data, a move vigorously opposed by the teachers union. He also oversaw the negotiation of a tentative legal settlement that would modify the last-hired, first-fired method of laying off instructors during budget crises.

Deasy's role in these initiatives is "disappointing," said A. J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. But the union leader noted that Deasy was respected for collaborating with teachers in his previous posts with school systems in Rhode Island, Maryland and Santa Monica-Malibu.

An academic with strong union ties said Deasy has invited broad participation in efforts to improve teacher evaluations. This process includes developing a "value-added" measure that would include students' test scores in rating teachers' performance.

"Deasy allowed a diverse group of experts to participate, a group that I have been favorably impressed by," said Ken Futernick, director of the Sacramento-based School Turnaround Center.

A majority of the board, none of whom would speak publicly about Deasy before Tuesday, had apparently reached consensus on the veteran educator by last week, prompting board President Monica Garcia to take the lead in setting up contract negotiations.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who also hasn't commented about the selection — and who declined to be interviewed — has been quietly involved. He has been meeting regularly with Garcia and Deasy. And staff at the district and City Hall confirmed that the mayor was aware of the pending vote, apparently before even some board members.

Cortines, who has had a strained relationship with the mayor in recent months, has not been involved.

Cortines, 78, announced last year that he would retire this spring. It was a decision generally welcomed in the mayor's office and among allies of the mayor, who felt that Cortines was not making changes fast enough.

Deasy, 50, was widely perceived as Cortines' successor from the moment he arrived five months ago.

The board used no application process, no search, no other candidates and no process for public input.

The district's administrators union approves of Deasy but is dissatisfied with the way he was chosen.

"An open, clear process doesn't guarantee a great superintendent, but it does include the public at some level in thinking about it," said Judith Perez, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles. An appointment this crucial "calls out for some public discussion about what kind of person is best to lead the district."

Nonetheless, she regards Deasy as bright, thoughtful and accessible.

Caprice Young, a former school board president and charter school advocate, said all that really matters is the quality of the choice — and she said Deasy is a home run.

"The board represents the constituents," said Young, who runs charters in South Los Angeles. "It's their responsibility to get the right person."

Also enthusiastic was Jed Wallace, head of the California Charter Schools Assn. Charters are independently managed public schools, most of which are nonunion.

Although charter leaders praised Deasy for an openness to new unconventional approaches, some also noted his limited background with charters: Maryland has relatively restrictive rules for charter schools, and demand for them was low in Santa Monica's well regarded, comparatively prosperous school system.

Deasy has led three school districts, including Santa Monica-Malibu Unified for about five years. From there he moved for two years to Maryland's Prince George's County Public Schools, which has 127,000 students. He then spent two years as a deputy director at the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. There he presided over grants to develop teacher evaluations at least partly based on standardized test scores.

In Los Angeles, Deasy must navigate powerful entrenched interests with competing, even conflicting, visions of how to improve lagging school performance.

These interests, including the unions and charter schools, also are ready to do battle over limited and shrinking resources. Over the last three years, L.A. Unified has slashed hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget, increased class sizes and laid off teachers and other employees. More cuts are expected in the coming year.

The school system has 671,0000 students, most from low-income, minority families; 74% of students are Latino. About two-thirds of the district's high schoolers test below proficient levels in English. Math scores also remain low.

"The superintendent is going to have to be very adroit, diplomatic and be able to do two key things: push his agenda and be a collaborator," said Duffy, the teacher union head.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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