For LAUSD’s Beutner, a turbulent term but no regrets – Daily News


  • Outgoing LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner reflects on his time in the district during during an interview earlier this month. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, center, speaks with LAUSD board member George McKenna, left, and Superintendent Austin Beutner at the announcement of a new magnet high school in South Los Angeles on Monday, June 14, 2021. The school, which will be located on the Audubon Middle School campus, will be a partnership with music producer Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner and rapper/tech entrepreneur will.i.am visit with students at Theodore Roosevelt High School as they announce the launch of FIRST Robotics clubs at middle and high schools throughout the district on Wednesday, June 23, 2021. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Pasha Majd, 6, helps LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner out of a tunnel as Beutner joins a kindergarten class at Kenter Canyon Elementary Charter School in Brentwood to celebrate the reopening of playgrounds at early education centers and elementary schools across the district on Monday, May 3, 2021. Parents were upset to learn that the play structures were off limits when students first returned to school in April. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner delivers his final State of the Schools address at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

  • LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner announces a partnership with Amazon to provide jobs to LAUSD graduates during a press conference at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Los Angeles on Monday, May 17, 2021. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla and LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner greet each other in front of an electric school bus
    during a news conference in Los Angeles about transitioning America’s school bus fleet to electric buses on Thursday, May 6, 2021. Padilla and U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas are sponsoring legislation that would invest $25 billion to replace diesel buses with electric ones. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner and UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz talk during a visit to Playa Vista Elementary School on Thursday, April 29, 2021. (Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)

  • LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner gets his temperature checked at Maurice Sendak Elementary School in North Hollywood, on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. It was the first day back on campus for kindergarten and first-grade students following more than a year of pandemic-induced school closures. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom, middle, who is joined by Austin Beutner, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, right, and Jimmy Gomez, Representative for California’s 34th District, talks to students getting vaccinated at Esteban E. Torres High School in Los Angeles on Thursday, May 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner takes a coronavirus test at Pacoima Middle School on Tuesday, September 22, 2020. The district plans to test every student and staff member before schools reopen. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Superintendent Austin Beutner helps distribute food at a Grab & Go Food Center at San Fernando Senior High School on Monday, April 20, 2020. The district believes the program was the single largest food-relief effort in the nation’s history — with 140 million meals served to children and adults seeking assistance. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Nurse Theresa Jackson puts a bandage on the arm of LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner after he receives a flu shot at a flu shot and COVID-19 testing clinic at San Fernando Middle School on Friday, October 16, 2020. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Dressed as Santa Claus, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner helps distribute meals and gifts at one of the district’s Grab & Go food centers at Washington Prep High School in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. Since the pandemic began in March, LAUSD has distributed 90 million meals to students and their families. (Photo by Scott Varley, Contributing Photographer)

  • LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner visits with Crenshaw High School students during the announcement of a 3DE (Three Dimensional Education) program at the school in Los Angeles on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. The fall launch will be the first 3DE program in California. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Then-UTLA President Alex Caputo Pearl, center, flanked by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, left, and LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner, announces at a press conference that the school district and teachers union have reached tentative agreement on a new contract, ending a six-day teachers strike in Los Angeles in this January 2019 photo. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner addresses school board members at his last board meeting on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner leaves the district office during his final school board meeting on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Wanted: Someone to work 15-hour shifts, seven days a week, to help children progress academically while also working on solutions to address food and housing insecurity — and all while battling a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis.

That’s not how the job posting read when Los Angeles Unified schools chief Austin Beutner signed up for the role. But had it been, he still would’ve been up for the task.

In fact, he said during a recent interview, “I would’ve found it harder to turn it down. … If someone told me kids would be more in need, I would’ve felt it was a responsibility to try to help in any way, shape or form.”

But after three years at the helm of the nation’s second-largest school district, Beutner — whose tenure was rocked by labor unrest, calls for defunding campus police and a deadly pandemic — will step down after Wednesday when his contract ends.

He’s described the superintendency as “the most rewarding job I’ve held during my nearly 40-year career” and said the school board had asked him to stay on. But juggling familial duties while working 100-plus hours each week during a global pandemic proved too grueling.

The self-made multimillionaire could easily not work another day of his life, but Beutner, who says he’s not programmed to sit idly by, has made clear he’s not retiring. What exactly he’ll do next, though, is to be determined.

“I want to spend my time trying to make things better for others,” he said. “If you look at my own life, a great public education, the opportunity to find a good-paying job, were foundational for me. If I can continue to help provide that same opportunity for others, that would be a good way to spend my time.”

To understand his desire to devote his time to improving the lives of others, one must go back to 2007 when he broke his neck after crashing his mountain bike and had to be airlifted out of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Staring up at the ceiling while recovering in the hospital, Beutner — who had made his fortunes as an investment banker — came to the revelation that his four children’s college expenses were essentially paid for, and while he could simply write checks as most wealthy donors do for causes they support, he wanted to dig in and get involved in the work himself.

He’d already gotten involved in philanthropic work by that point, but after the accident, Beutner decided to leave the Wall Street world behind.

A controversial hire

The son of a factory worker and a public school teacher, Beutner, who was born in New York, had lived in five different states by the fifth grade. He attended public school throughout his K-12 career and credits the education he received during those years for his later endeavors.

After studying economics at Dartmouth College, he became, at 29, the youngest-ever partner at The Blackstone Group, an investment firm. He then co-founded Evercore Partners, a leading independent global investment bank.

His foray into public service began in the mid-1990s, first as an advisor under the Clinton administration, helping Russia transition to a market economy following the Soviet Union’s collapse, then continued in 2010 when he was tapped by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as L.A.’s first deputy mayor for business development, at a salary of $1 per year. (He left that job a year later to run for mayor but ended his campaign in 2012, citing family concerns.)

Also in 2012, he founded Vision To Learn, a nonprofit that provides free eye exams and glasses to low-income children. It started in L.A. before expanding to more than a dozen states.

Beutner would go on to be named publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times in 2014, only to be fired a year later amid a battle over the publication’s direction.

Yet for all his varied work experiences, his lack of experience as a K-12 educator was deeply troubling to some, despite having taught college courses at several universities.

Former school board member Richard Vladovic, who was on the board that voted 5-2 to hire Beutner in 2018, said the latter was chosen out of more than 30 applicants nationwide. Beutner had, by that point, served on LAUSD’s Advisory Task Force, a group made up of civic, education, labor and business leaders that provided recommendations to the district.

Vladovic said he endorsed Beutner because the district was headed toward a fiscal crisis and needed someone with the business acumen to look at how LAUSD could address salaries and provide employee health benefits and services to students differently while saving the district money.

“My specific goal in hiring Austin was to look at the finances because he was smart. I knew we were going to get heat for him not being an educator,” Vladovic said. “(But) we needed somebody to connect the dots differently.”

In 2019, LAUSD negotiated with its employee groups to restructure its health benefits to reduce the district’s long-term health care liabilities by $6 billion.

The local teachers union, whose leaders also feared Beutner would try to close traditional public schools, meanwhile became an early critic of his, attacking his lack of experience in the education world.

“It sends a terrible message to the community, parents and students of L.A. Unified … that qualifications and experience don’t matter when you want to lead in education,” Gloria Martinez, elementary vice president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said shortly after his hiring.

UTLA declined to comment for this article about its view of Beutner today.

Beutner and the union waged a months-long public battle over teachers’ contract demands that evolved into a mammoth strike in 2019 that shut down schools for more than a week and drew national media attention. It took an all-night bargaining session at City Hall, with Mayor Eric Garcetti helping to broker a deal, to finally bring an end to the walkout.

Negotiations between the district and union were drawn out, too, over how to reopen campuses as the deadly coronavirus outbreak finally eased its grip on the region.

“The right man, at the right time”

Some who opposed Beutner’s hiring initially have since changed their tune.

School board member Jackie Goldberg, who was not yet on the board when Beutner was hired, told the outgoing superintendent during his final board meeting last week that while she had urged the board at the time not to select him, “I’ve changed my mind completely.”

He impressed her, she said, by taking swift action when schools abruptly closed in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Beutner immediately got on the phone to secure laptops and hotspots so that approximately half a million students could continue their education via distance learning. He also sprung into action to get the district’s Grab & Go food-relief program running so students and their families would not go hungry during this period.

“You were the right man, at the right time, for the right job,” she said. She also told Beutner he had “the right ideas, with the right intensity, at a time when we needed you most.”

Drawing on his business acumen, Beutner set to work, rolling out what the district believes is the single largest food-relief effort in the nation’s history — with 140 million meals served to children and adults seeking assistance — as well as a COVID-19 testing and contact tracing program, and an effort to provide employees, students and their families with access to coronavirus vaccines.

Asked to rate his tenure as superintendent, Beutner said he’d give himself “pretty darn good” marks.

What about academic growth?

Whether a fan or critic of Beutner’s, those who spoke with the Los Angeles Daily News all credited the superintendent for taking charge to address food insecurity, provide students with laptops and internet access during distance learning, and ensure access to COVID-19 vaccines to students, staff and community members. Those actions are laudable, and for which he’ll most be remembered, they said.

But there were also missed opportunities during his tenure, some say.

Ana Ponce, executive director of Great Public Schools Now, said the district should have looked at innovative ways of delivering instruction and at providing more training to teachers and parents on how to support their children during distance learning.

“Before the pandemic hit, we had less than 50% of our students proficient in English language arts and math. We were already behind,” she said. “It was great that we got the (COVID-19) testing off the ground. It was great that the vaccines came, (the) providing meals to families. … But there’s also the responsibility of educating kids.”

“Our kids could’ve had more than three hours of live instruction a day (during distance learning). Our kids could’ve returned to school in person sooner,” said Ponce, adding that students with special needs weren’t served well.

Beutner believes the district did succeed in educating students. As part of Primary Promise, an initiative he launched last year aimed at making sure every student builds a foundation in literacy, math and critical thinking skills by the third grade, LAUSD hired 200 more reading teachers during the pandemic to work with young learners struggling to read. Those in the program caught up to their peers midyear, with Black students and English learners logging the greatest gains, according to the district.

“Twenty-five points of progress. Black students ahead of their peers. It can be done,” Beutner said. “The notion that we can only improve one or two points a year, I think, is a function of a system that’s set up to do tomorrow what it did yesterday. We have to do things very differently.”

Beutner called Primary Promise “the single biggest change in instruction in Los Angeles Unified in decades.”

Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association, knows Beutner from his days as first deputy mayor of L.A., when Beutner dealt with the business communities.

An organization as large as LAUSD, which employs about 86,000 people, needed an outsider with a fresh perspective to come in to affect change, Waldman said. That said, he believes Beutner at times hit a wall in his attempts to shake up the organization.

“I think Austin thought he could come in and negotiate and make changes, either large or incremental. He was probably surprised by the animosity that UTLA had toward him from the get-go,” said Waldman, who believes the leaders of the teachers union had made up their minds that they would walk out and that Beutner should not be blamed for the six-day strike in January 2019, about eight months into his tenure.

In terms of outreach, Waldman credits Beutner for extending a hand to the business communities. Since Beutner’s arrival to LAUSD, business leaders have received more frequent briefings about things going on in the district and are asked for their input more often, he said.

“He came in wanting to work with the business community,” Waldman said. “I think that helped in terms of fundraising and collaboration with companies that really jumped in and were happy to help. He knew the business community had something to offer.”

Throughout the pandemic, Beutner drew upon his connections in the business and philanthropic worlds to donate or otherwise help out the district, securing partnerships with big-name companies and celebrities.

In recent weeks, the district has announced it is teaming up with Amazon to provide jobs to LAUSD graduates as well as plans to open a design, business and technology school with rap mogul Dr. Dre and music producer Jimmy Iovine and a film and television program with George Clooney and other Hollywood celebrities on its advisory board. Most recently, the district announced a partnership with musician/tech innovator will.i.am to start a robotics club at every secondary school in LAUSD.

District officials say the purpose of these programs is to engage students in school, particularly those who have historically been underserved.

But some in the community have wondered whether such headline-grabbing initiatives are a distraction to other critical work they say the district should be focusing on, such as coming up with more specific plans for helping children recover from learning losses and the trauma of the pandemic.

Parent Joel Delman said press conferences of Beutner standing alongside celebrities are photo opportunities that distract from concerns raised by parents who felt the district waited much too long before reopening campuses in April. The delayed reopenings harmed students academically and socially, they said. The district had to negotiate reopening protocols with the teachers union, which insisted that certain health and safety protocols be met before agreeing to return to in-person instruction.

“For some reason, he came to really capitulate to each and every demand of the teachers union at the expense of students,” Delman said of Beutner. “The outcome of his many decisions related to school reopenings and to the distance learning program … were absolutely counter to the interest of not only students in general, but (were) particularly harmful to the disadvantaged kids who make up such a large percentage of LAUSD who he claims to have been keeping first and foremost in mind.”

Another parent, Jenna Schwartz, co-founder of Parents Supporting Teachers, said while some parents were dissatisfied with when or how schools reopened in the spring, the majority of families supported the agreement between the district and teachers union.

As for Beutner, Schwartz said he first approached labor negotiations as a business transaction without fully understanding the role that public education plays in the communities.

“He had to learn quickly that our communities and our families place a huge value on our public education teachers,” Schwartz said. “He was able to evolve from a businessman that everybody feared was going to destroy public education … and I think that he learned over his tenure how valuable public education is and what a service it does to a community where over 80% of kids are living in poverty.”

Where Beutner fell short, Ponce and Delman said, was in engaging with families — an area they said the district needs to improve upon.

Quiet but intense

Those close to Beutner, meanwhile, describe him as a quick study, a gifted listener and a skilled negotiator.

Vladovic, the former school board member, said Beutner came to the district not speaking the lingo of educators but surrounded himself with smart people and asked questions. To the public, his soft-spoken nature and quiet demeanor might be mistaken for passiveness, but Vladovic said he would listen with intensity.

“If you saw him sometimes, he would just sit there and listen. He internalized things,” Vladovic said. “Some people confuse his lack of exuberance with a lack of passion. Oh no; he’s very strong. … But he doesn’t jump up and down.”

Former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor, who’s known Beutner since the mid-1990s when both men served in the Clinton administration, described his friend as even keeled but intense; one who’s competitive in sports and doesn’t like to lose.

“It’s a controlled intensity,” Kantor said. “It’s not someone who is unable to control his emotions. Like everyone else, he gets frustrated, but he’s able to deal with his frustration.”

The ability to check his emotions likely served him well as a negotiator with Russian officials, Kantor said, adding that Beutner had a knack for bringing together people and communicating complex issues in ways that people could understand.

Where he could see Beutner, a doer, getting frustrated, he said, would be in instances where people did not follow through on tasks.

“He believes we all should fulfill our responsibilities, whatever they may be,” Kantor said. “If someone doesn’t carry out what they agreed to do, I think that would bother him a lot.”

Asked if he thought Beutner would run for office — some have wondered if he’d throw his hat in the ring again for mayor — Kantor said he did not know what his friend would do next. But, should Beutner run, he would not be “a typical politician,” Kantor said.

Beutner himself hasn’t entirely ruled out politics. But until his last day as superintendent, Beutner said his focus is on his current job, and that he’ll decide about future endeavors afterwards.

One thing he’s certain of, he said: he’ll continue to work to make a difference — somehow.

“I’m fortunate that I can choose how I want to spend my time,” he said, an acknowledgment of his financial comfort. “This is how I want to spend my time. This is a choice. To make life better for someone else, to me, that’s more rewarding than whatever one might do in retirement.”

“I think I’ve still got energy. I think I’ve still got another chapter in me,” he added. “And if I can make a difference for someone else, why wouldn’t I?”

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