LOS ANGELES — Investment banker and former Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner toured Belmont High School May 2 during his first day as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, but he continued to face questions due to his lack of education experience.
“To state the obvious, I’m an unconventional choice. Unconventional by lots of measures, I think you’ve heard that already,” Beutner said after touring the school. “But the district is at a crossroads. We face some tough issues. But I believe we can move forward together and address these issues to unlock the enormous potential the district holds.
“Hard choices are just that, hard,” he said. “But our school board is capable of making hard choices. I know, for example, it was not easy to choose me. And now we have more hard choices to look at, more decisions to make together. But if we make all those decisions with an understanding, with a commitment to provide the best possible education for the students in Belmont High and the students throughout L.A. Unified, we’re going to get better.”
Beutner, 58, was chosen May 1 on a 5-2 vote, with board members George McKenna and Scott Schmerelson objecting. The board approved a three-year contract that provides Beutner with a base salary of $350,000 a year.
McKenna and Schmerelson both issued statements blasting the choice of Beutner, who has no experience working at schools or school districts.
“The premise that a non-educator is a better fit to lead a large educational organization because of limited managerial experience in outside business experiences is fundamentally flawed and politically motivated,” McKenna said.
McKenna and Schmerelson both favored Vivian Ekchian, who had been acting as interim superintendent since Michelle King stepped aside for health reasons last year.
McKenna said the selection of a “non-educator” shows a “lack of respect for the professional educators who have demonstrated effective service and leadership within school systems, along with the board’s ultimate responsibility to establish policies that govern the district and hold the superintendent accountable.”
Officials with United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing LAUSD teachers, expressed similar concerns, suggesting that Beutner was selected by a pro-charter-school majority of board members and is likely to support a proliferation of the privately run campuses.
Board member Nick Melvoin insisted, however, that Beutner’s wide-ranging background gives him the tools to take a fresh approach to running the district.
“It’s because his blend of public, private and government experience makes him uniquely qualified to disentangle the thickly woven red tape that is holding us back from local control, innovative lessons and dynamic partnerships that can truly make our public schools the center of every neighborhood in Los Angeles,” Melvoin said.
In 2010, Beutner became first deputy mayor of Los Angeles under Antonio Villaraigosa, overseeing business and job development. He was part of the Villaraigosa administration for about a year, also filling in as interim director of the Department of Water and Power.
He ran for mayor in 2012 when Villaraigosa was termed out of office, but his campaign never caught on and he dropped out early.
In 2014, Beutner co-chaired the 2020 Commission, which made recommendations for the future of Los Angeles. He then became publisher and chief executive of the Los Angeles Times but was fired after a year over disagreements about the newspaper’s direction.
He more recently served on the L.A. Unified Advisory Task Force created under King to help meet goals in the district’s strategic plan and “to foster a culture of change in which we identify opportunities and embrace solutions to close the achievement gap.”
“Austin will be a great leader for the district and I applaud the board for selecting him,” said Robert Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, a local philanthropic organization. “We in the philanthropic community are ready to stand with him and district leadership to support their vision for children from all communities in Los Angeles.
Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a statement congratulating Beutner on his appointment and saying he looked forward to “supporting his work to transform young lives and help all of our students achieve their dreams through public education.”
Beutner takes over a district facing financial struggles and labor issues. Thousands of unionized cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians and other support personnel have already authorized a strike, citing a stall in contract talks.
Beutner acknowledged those challenges, noting that the district also faces continued problems of under-performing schools, achievement gaps and declining enrollment.
“These challenges will not be easy to solve, and all of this work will be made harder by a looming set of budget issues … but working together we can solve them,” he said.
“The commitment to change, the commitment to a better education for our community … has to be embraced by everybody in Los Angeles, not just those with kids in L.A. Unified or who work at L.A. Unified.”