Austin Beutner Named Superintendent Of L.A. Schools, As Board Turns Focus To Tackling Dire Academic And Fiscal Challenges

Austin Beutner Named Superintendent of L.A. Schools, as Board Turns Focus to Tackling Dire Academic and Fiscal Challenges

This article was produced in collaboration with LA School Report; check out notable moments from our series focused on Los Angeles.

The elected officials responsible for overseeing Los Angeles’s public schools sent a clear message on Tuesday: the city is in need of strong leadership. In light of this, they selected local businessman Austin Beutner to serve as the superintendent of schools.

Beutner brings a unique perspective to the position, as he is both an insider and an outsider. He has deep roots in Los Angeles and has demonstrated a strong commitment to civic service. While he does not have an education background, Beutner has a strong financial acumen, political savvy, and negotiation skills. He previously served as the first deputy mayor of Los Angeles and later became the publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times. Currently, he co-leads a task force focused on the LA Unified School District.

This decision reveals a desire among board members to bring about significant change within the district. By selecting Beutner over Interim Superintendent Vivian Ekchian, who has spent her entire career in the district as an educator and administrator, the board members are signaling a need for fresh perspectives. Moreover, this decision is motivated by the urgent requirement to improve the quality of education provided by LA’s public schools, while also addressing the district’s deteriorating finances, which could potentially result in state control within two years.

The vote to select Beutner as superintendent was split, with five members in favor and two members, Scott Schmerelson and George McKenna, voting against his appointment.

After the announcement of the vote, Beutner released a statement expressing his gratitude for the opportunity to lead the LA Unified School District. He acknowledged the complex nature of the organization and the immense potential of its students. Beutner stressed the importance of adopting policies and making decisions that prioritize delivering the best education possible to all students. He looks forward to collaborating with the school board, parents, employees, labor partners, and the community to build upon the progress made in the district, overcome challenges, and fulfill the promise made to students.

In an interview following the vote, board president Mónica García emphasized the commitment of all members to those they serve. While acknowledging differing viewpoints on the "how," García believes this is an opportunity for everyone to come together and work towards the betterment of LA’s public schools.

Nick Melvoin, board vice president, expressed confidence in Beutner’s ability to bring innovative thinking to the position. He recognized the need for change and emphasized that maintaining the status quo is not sufficient for the wellbeing of the district’s students. Melvoin also stated that Interim Superintendent Ekchian will return to her previous role as associate superintendent, praising her stable leadership.

Board member Kelly Gonez addressed the district’s financial challenges, highlighting the potential devastation if urgent action is not taken. She expressed confidence in Beutner’s ability to address the fiscal crisis and guide the district towards a more sustainable path. Although his limited educational background is a concern, Gonez expects Beutner to work closely with the board and district leaders to address any gaps.

During the board meeting, various speakers reflected the deep divisions within LA’s education community. Some parents voiced frustration at not being included in the selection process, while others expressed support for Beutner.

The entire selection process was conducted privately, with candidates only being unveiled as they dropped out of the race. The limited number of candidates, only two, former Baltimore superintendent Andrés Alonso and Indianapolis superintendent Lewis Ferebee, suggests that there may have been a shortage of qualified individuals due to the significant challenges and political divisions within the LA education system.

Austin Beutner, a 58-year-old father of four, currently co-leads the LA Unified Advisory Task Force. This task force was established last year and consists of community leaders who study and provide recommendations on ongoing challenges faced by the district. The group has focused on issues such as student attendance, transparency and accountability, and the district’s real estate management.

Beutner was born in New York and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In 2012, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Los Angeles. He is actively involved in various philanthropic partnerships and serves on the boards of the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education and other organizations. Additionally, he has worked for the U.S. State Department, leading a team in Russia to assist with the country’s transition from communism to a free-market economy.

Ekchian, who has been leading the district since last fall in place of the cancer-stricken Michelle King, has garnered strong support from parents’ committees. She brings extensive experience to the table, having previously headed the human resources department and served as the lead contract negotiator in addition to being a former principal and teacher in the local school district of northwest San Fernando Valley.

When Beutner officially assumes his role on May 14, he will be faced with multiple challenges right off the bat. These include labor negotiations, a school workers union that has already voted in favor of a strike, a decline in enrollment that is projected to put the district in financial difficulty within three years, and mounting retirement costs that the district has thus far neglected to address adequately.

The new superintendent will need to have a clear vision for enhancing student achievement and improving the overall quality of education, particularly for students who are most in need of support.

Despite some academic progress over recent years, the district still falls short in terms of math, reading, and writing proficiency, with less than half of the students meeting the required standards. Students from minority backgrounds and those from low-income households continue to lag behind their peers. Furthermore, there has been a 50% increase in the number of homeless students within LA Unified, reaching an all-time high of over 17,000.

LA Unified currently serves 473,000 students, and an additional 160,000 students attend the 281 charter schools authorized by the district. Enrollment has declined by 30% since its peak in 2004, as residents have sought refuge from the city’s high cost of living, with families opting for independent charter schools instead. It is estimated that by the 2020-21 school year, the district will face a budget deficit of $380 million, largely due to the district’s unfunded pension liabilities, which have now reached $15.2 billion. Looking ahead to 2030, almost half of LA Unified’s budget will be allocated to retirees’ healthcare and pensions.

"The financial issues are of utmost importance, overshadowing everything else. Unfortunately, we need to view everything through that lens," remarked Mike Trujillo, an LA Unified graduate and long-standing Democratic Party strategist in Los Angeles who has collaborated with Beutner for over a decade. "He will scrutinize every dollar to ensure it reaches the students and classrooms that need it the most."

Beutner must prioritize "tackling the district’s fiscal crisis," warns Nadia Diaz Funn, the executive director of the Alliance for a Better Community, which focuses on serving the Latino community in South and Southeast LA. She emphasizes that the district must undergo a profound and challenging transformation in order to secure its long-term viability.

"We will work alongside him to promote equitable access to high-quality education in our communities and secure additional resources for students with greater needs," added Diaz Funn.

Maria Brenes, the executive director of InnerCity Struggle, cautioned against solving the district’s financial woes at the expense of high-needs students and their communities. She believes that the board had to make difficult decisions considering various obstacles, such as the achievement gap, access to college, and equitable school funding.

"We are dealing with fiscal problems, equity issues, and challenges in student achievement. It is crucial for the board and the new superintendent to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable students," stressed Brenes.

Trujillo highlights Beutner’s strong negotiation skills, acquired over a lifetime of experience. He notes that Beutner has proven himself at City Hall and the Los Angeles Times by assembling a team of talented individuals to ensure the excellence of LAUSD’s education portfolio. Trujillo also acknowledges that the district already has highly capable personnel specializing in curriculum, special education, early education, and instructional protocol. Beutner’s role is to bring greater attention to these areas and ensure financial viability.

Ben Austin, a long-time education advocate and founder of Kids Coalition, expresses confidence in Beutner’s ability to not only rescue LAUSD from bankruptcy but also to fundamentally rethink and revolutionize public education delivery for 21st-century children. Austin emphasizes that while Beutner may not have a traditional background, the challenges facing LAUSD require unconventional solutions. Austin urges parents and students to collaborate with the new superintendent and hold him accountable for prioritizing the needs of their children as LAUSD enters a new chapter in public education.

Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, praised Beutner for his strong grasp on local politics and financial expertise. However, she expressed uncertainty about his ideas and strategies for improving schools and instruction, emphasizing the importance of a strong team and a comprehensive school improvement strategy.

While some members of the board sought input from their respective communities through various means such as community sessions and online surveys, the closed search process faced criticism during a board meeting as individuals came forward to voice their concerns.

Lluvia Saenz, a mother of three students at Huntington Park Elementary, expressed her anger towards the board for disregarding parents’ opinions and advocated for the appointment of Vivian Ekchian, who she believed had the necessary experience and understanding of the realities faced by students in the LAUSD.

However, other parent groups expressed support for Beutner, citing his vision, experience, and financial expertise as crucial for reforming the district, especially in light of its potential bankruptcy. Katie Braude, the executive director of Speak UP, highlighted the clear priorities set by parents and their belief that Beutner is capable of implementing necessary changes.

Seth Litt, the executive director of Parent Revolution, emphasized the urgency of the situation and the need for collaboration between parents, the new superintendent, and board members in order to improve the lowest-performing schools in Los Angeles.

Zeyna Faucette, a high school senior, urged the superintendent to prioritize the needs of all students and ensure equal opportunities for success and future education for everyone. She stressed the importance of addressing challenges rather than taking the easy way out.

Julia Macias, another high school senior and president of the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, expressed disappointment in the board’s decision. She felt that students’ voices were not adequately considered and called for greater student representation in decision-making processes to ensure a quality education for all.

Kathy Kantner, a representative of the LAUSD Parent and Community Sunshine Committee and Community Advisory Committee, called on the Board of Education to justify their choice of Beutner over a highly qualified educator. She highlighted the disappointed voices of numerous stakeholders and called for unity within the district.

Max Arias, the executive director of SEIU Local 99, expressed hope that Beutner would work collaboratively with the union to avoid a potential strike. He emphasized the shared goal of closing the achievement gap and achieving equity in schools, urging Beutner to partner with school staff, parents, students, and communities to address the various challenges impacting children’s education.

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    Jessica Wilson is a 33-year-old essay writer and blogger from the UK. She has been writing since she was a teenager and has always been interested in writing about personal experiences and thoughts. Jessica has written for a number of online magazines and websites and has also published a number of essays and short stories. Jessica currently works as a freelance writer.