The LAUSD Board has turned to a longtime Los Angeles civic leader and finance expert to lead the district through difficult financial times. The former first deputy mayor and Los Angeles Times Publisher and CEO was named LAUSD’s next superintendent Tuesday after a 5-2 vote.
“It is my distinct honor and privilege to take on the responsibility to lead the L.A. Unified School District; a complex, diverse organization, full of students bursting with potential,” said Beutner, who signed a three-year contract and starts the job in two weeks. “These young women and men are the future of our community, and every policy we adopt and every decision we make must be with the sole focus of doing everything we can to provide them with the best education possible.”
Board Member Richard Vladovic (BD7) joined Board members Monica Garcia (BD2), Nick Melvoin (BD4), Ref Rodriguez (BD5) and Kelly Gonez (BD6) in voting yes for Beutner. Board members Scott Schmerelson (BD3) and George McKenna (BD1) voted no, in large part because they wanted an educator in the top LAUSD job – specifically an insider they knew, Interim Superintendent Vivian Ekchian.
But the vote for Beutner was a vote for systemic change.
“I think that years of trying to solve seemingly intractable problems at what I don’t think any Board member would agree is an accelerated enough pace requires some new out-of-the-box thinking,” Melvoin said after the meeting. “The Board spent a lot of time identifying our challenges, and there are many: financial instability and insolvency, structural deficits, [retiree healthcare] liabilities, persistent achievement gaps, declining enrollment…I’m confident that Mr. Beutner, along with this Board, can bring some innovative thinking to this. We have to disenthrall ourselves from the idea that the status quo is good enough for kids.”
Beutner has a strong business background. He began his career as a financial analyst and co-founded an investment banking group. He worked for the U.S. State Department in Russia, and as the first deputy mayor for then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in 2011. He also pushed to reform the Department of Water and Power.
Former Superintendent Michelle King tapped Beutner to chair an Advisory Task Force to examine some of LAUSD’s most intractable problems, such as chronic student absenteeism. He has served on the boards of several schools and was chair of the Board of Trustees of California Institute of the Arts. He was also a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School.
“We asked the Board for a superintendent who would be willing to make bold changes to reform the district, and we believe Austin Beutner has the vision and experience to get the job done,” said Speak UP Executive Director Katie Braude. “We’re lucky that someone of his caliber is willing to step in at such a critical juncture for LAUSD.”
Braude said she was encouraged by the fact that the Advisory Task Force Beutner chaired called for giving parents more transparent and clear information about school performance – one of Speak UP’s key policy initiatives.
“Now, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work to improve the lowest-performing schools and to provide quality options for every family in LAUSD,” Braude added. “Our parents have made their priorities clear to the Board. It’s time to radically decentralize the district and bring more local autonomy and accountability to L.A. schools. Under new leadership, LAUSD has the opportunity to finally listen and respond to parents and put kids first. We look forward to working with the new superintendent to help remake LA schools for the 21st century.”
Beutner is a civic leader in Los Angeles who clearly cares about the future of the city. As first deputy mayor, he accepted a salary of just $1 per year. He founded a nonprofit that provides free eye exams and free eyeglasses to students in low-income communities. And as publisher of the Los Angeles Times, he attempted to partner with philanthropist Eli Broad to engineer a purchase of the paper and wrest control from Chicago owners, giving it local control. Beutner may be able to attract more outside philanthropic investment in LAUSD schools, which is badly needed in a state that underfunds education.
While detractors questioned Beutner’s lack of education experience, Melvoin pointed out that other successful school superintendents such as Joel Klein of New York rose to the top job without a lifelong background in education. And while most of the Board members who will oversee Beutner are former educators and school leaders, no one on the Board has his strong background in finance.
And the financial issues LAUSD is facing are serious. The district’s unfunded liabilities for retiree healthcare have risen to more than $15 billion. Pension and healthcare costs take up an increasing portion of the budget every year, as revenue from enrollment is declining. This structural deficit creates a serious threat of insolvency and state takeover, and it leads to a larger and larger portion of educational dollars flowing outside the classroom every year.
“In order to meet the demands of our finance and our fiscal outlook, we all have to be learners,” Garcia said after the meeting. “What I particularly welcome is an opportunity for this district to work with a person who has system-wide experience of focusing on mission, building capacity and really doubling down on what’s working and focusing on what needs to change.”
The next superintendent will likely need to make some tough decisions involving school consolidation and will have to attempt to cut costs without negatively impacting students – all while negotiating new labor agreements.
Anna Parks, a Speak UP parent from Board District 1, said she hopes the new superintendent will be a “disruptor” who will finally start collaborating with parents. “What we need most urgently is to dismantle LAUSD’s leadership culture of defensiveness, complacency and mutual self protection.”
Speak UP’s Sheyla Menzie, also a parent in BD1, echoed those sentiments: “We, the parents are ready to roll up our sleeves, but we need you to do the same,” she told the Board. “We are tired of being ignored. We’re tired of our English learners getting a sub-par education. We are tired of the achievement gap faced by our African American students. We can do better, and we are ready to help. Don’t forget: Without us parents choosing LAUSD schools, there will be no more LAUSD. So please, work with us, and we will work with you.”
Braude emphasized the importance of the task at hand: “We are counting on Beutner to make the changes we need to ensure our kids get well educated,” she said. “These are our kids. This is our city. Everyone has a stake in it.”