LAUSD’s New Leader, A Man of Substance Over Flash, Says ‘Change Must Happen’

LAUSD's new superintendent Austin Beutner flanked by City year LA volunteers, Board President Monica Garcia and Vice President Nick Melvoin Wednesday at Belmont High

LAUSD's new superintendent Austin Beutner flanked by City year LA volunteers, Board President Monica Garcia and Vice President Nick Melvoin Wednesday at Belmont High

LAUSD’s new superintendent, Austin Beutner, is the son of an immigrant factory supervisor who fled the Nazis and a mom who was a reading teacher. In high school, he washed dishes at a restaurant, worked at a detergent factory and drove a delivery truck for a florist.

His family moved five times, and each time, his parents chose the neighborhood with the best public schools. Armed with an excellent education, Beutner worked in finance and at 29 became the youngest partner at his private equity firm. He subsequently founded his own investment banking firm, but a life-changing event a decade ago altered his priorities.

“I had a bad accident mountain biking. I broke my neck,” he said. “Oddly enough, the part I remember most was them picking gravel out of my knuckles.”

It took him a year to get back on his feet, and “during that time I decided I wanted to spend the next chapter of my life working to make our community better,” he said. “To make sure others in the community had the same opportunities I did. And the best opportunity I was ever given was a great public education.”

Beutner opened up at his first press conference Wednesday at Belmont High, where he acknowledged that he was an “unconventional choice” to lead the second-largest school district because his professional background is in business and finance rather than education.

“But the district is at a crossroads,” he said. “We face some tough issues. Hard choices are just that, hard. But our school Board is capable of making hard choices. I know, for example, it was not easy to choose me.”

With a serious and sober demeanor, he laid out the case for why the district needs change. “LA Unified is making progress,” he said, “but the status quo is not good enough.”

Surrounded by students, Beutner said LAUSD “exists for one purpose: to serve the needs of the students and provide the best possible education.”

Right now, fewer than 40 percent of students are proficient in reading and less than a third proficient in math. “That’s not acceptable,” he said. “Less than 10 percent of African American and Latino boys who graduate are even eligible to apply to the Cal State and UC systems. This opportunity gap has to be addressed and resources made available to support the effort.”

Beutner will be charged with improving student academic performance and closing the racial achievement gap at a time when the district is facing a massive budget crisis that’s “very large and very real.”

The problems, however, are fixable. “Working together, we can solve them,” he said. “I’m not naïve. Changing any organization, especially one with 60,000 employees and many stakeholders whose interests do not always align is not going to be easy and will not happen overnight, but change must happen.”

Beutner called on the community -- businesses and philanthropic organizations and faith-based groups in Los Angeles – to step in and “increase their commitment to helping kids and helping schools.”

He also acknowledged that his own task involved reaching out to all stakeholders – especially parents. “We need to listen and engage with the community,” Beutner said. “The district has to be more transparent and accountable to those parents and communities it serves…One of the challenges we have actually is to make sure we have all of the relevant stakeholders in the community -- the parents, civic leaders, people who work in the district, teachers -- become part of this conversation.”

Beutner laid out a few priorities for change. “Facilities have to be clean, safe and welcoming, and school leaders have to be empowered to make decisions to address the needs of their school and their community,” he said. “We need to engage and empower the parents who put so much trust in LA Unified to help their children succeed. And we need to address the budget issues.”

His biggest promise was to be “honest and transparent” with LAUSD students. “If things are not right, let’s not sugarcoat it. Let’s have a candid conversation. And figure out how to make it right.”

While Beutner is likely to have to make some difficult and painful choices to consolidate under-enrolled schools and, perhaps, lay off employees, he said making cuts is not his first priority.

“‘Cuts’ is this notion that somehow exists in the ether and that impacts the lives of who do the work but more importantly impacts what happens in the classroom,” he said. “Before we get to that, we need to take a step back and say what are our values as an organization? What are we prioritizing and make sure the resources go there.”

Beutner also indicated that he would not attempt to balance the budget by shutting down high-performing charter schools and forcing kids back to traditional LAUSD schools. He would support all kids who attend public schools, regardless of model, and pitting charters against traditional district schools is a “false choice.”

LAUSD Board President Monica Garcia and Superintendent Austin Beutner at Belmont High

LAUSD Board President Monica Garcia and Superintendent Austin Beutner at Belmont High

“There are 500,000 kids who go to traditional public schools each and every day in Los Angeles. Let’s make sure we’re providing them with the best possible education,” he said. “I don’t think this is charter, not charter -- it’s more than that, it’s deeper than that. This is, how are we going to make sure each and every one of the kids, the 500,000 kids in traditional public education, the 100,000 kids in charter education…get the best possible education, and we need to look at the interests of all of them.”

There are uncontroversial ways to increase revenue at LAUSD, he said, pointing to his work on the Advisory Task Force examining LAUSD problems. About 80,000 LAUSD students are chronically absent, and because revenue is based on student attendance, this affects the district budget.

The task force decided to try a simple idea: sending postcards home to families. “The mailer doesn’t say 'shame on you.' It doesn’t say 'truant.' It says, ‘did you know your daughter missed 12 days? The average student in her class was eight, and those four extra days are going to make it harder for her to learn.’”

The mailers were highly effective, he said, and if the program were expanded to the entire district, 8,000-10,000 students would have better attendance, adding $10 million in revenue.

Beutner acknowledged skepticism from stakeholders over his appointment to the job and explained why his business background is an asset.

"A school district, education is not a business, but some of the same principles can be used: you build a team, you learn, you’ll be informed by data, you can hold people accountable to do the job they committed to do,” he said. "Part of what I need to do is recognize I can learn, and I will learn. I have to surround myself with people who know how this district works, who know more about what happens in the classroom than I do."

He signaled that his decision to hold his first press conference at a school rather than LAUSD’s headquarters reflected his disdain for the district bureaucracy and a vision of decentralization and more school site autonomy. “Beaudry reminds me more of the county jail than it does the place where the magic happens,” he said. “And this is where the magic happens.”

Beutner’s direct, low-key manner also gave an indication that he would prioritize substance over flash and real results over politics and PR. Board Vice President Nick Melvoin said we’d seen enough talk from the Board about the problems without “enough action attached.”

“Action, especially uncomfortable action, difficult action, action that makes up for years of inaction, can be hard,” Melvoin said. “It’s undoubtedly more difficult than just talking about the problem.”

Beutner put it simply: “I’m about deeds not words.” 

-- Jenny Hontz