The last time Austin Beutner delivered a State of Schools address, it was a few days before the start of the academic year in August 2019. With approximately a half-million K-12 students about to return to the classroom after summer vacation, it was the superintendent’s chance to lay down a road map of where the Los Angeles Unified School District was going, academically and otherwise.
When classes start again this August, Beutner will be gone from the job he has held for three years. In April the former investment banker, ex-City of Los Angeles First Deputy Mayor, nonprofit founder, and onetime Los Angeles Times publisher announced that he would not renew his contract leading the nation’s second-largest school district. His last day is June 30.
Yet Beutner didn’t let stuffy things like traditional timing stop him. On Tuesday morning, a few days after the 2020-21 academic year ended, he delivered his final State of Schools speech. And rather than a high school auditorium or other learning institution, Beutner went splashy, speaking at the Hollywood Bowl.
It should come as no surprise that he was thinking outside the box in terms of time and location. Actually, that metaphor isn’t quite right, as Beutner is less a guy who thinks outside the box, and more one who asks if the box as traditionally constructed even accomplishes its goal. He’s someone likely to bring in a team of experts and friends in high places to break down the box concept and come up with 117 tech-driven ways to make it function better.
Beutner spoke for 37 minutes on a morning that started warm and ended broiling. The address functioned as something of a victory lap, a chance to run down accomplishments, including precedent-setting educational and health efforts taken during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Ideas that are born and bred in our schools, ideas that are born and bred in Los Angeles Unified, are becoming a model for the nation, and I rather like the sound of that,” he said at the end of the address delivered to an audience largely comprised of principals, administrators, and district staff. “The future of our community, our state, and our nation is in our public schools, and I’m pleased to say the future looks very bright.”
Beutner’s tenure was anything but simple. He took over only because the previous superintendent, Michelle King, had tragically died. Beutner didn’t need the job and many didn’t want him to have it, citing his past in business rather than education. He had been part of a group advising King—after she passed away, he angled for the post, and a divided school board hired him in May 2018.
His first major task was working out a new contract with the powerful union United Teachers Los Angeles. The teachers went out on strike for six days in January 2019. The union won the PR war, but largely lost amid the rhetoric was that the contract they signed was almost identical to the one that district negotiators had offered before the labor stoppage.
The strike would come to be the relatively easy part of Beutner’s tenure, as a year after teachers walked out, the novel coronavirus arrived in Los Angeles. On Friday, March 13, 2020, Beutner announced that although no cases of COVID-19 had been identified within the LAUSD, campuses would close the following Monday.
“This action saved lives,” Beutner stated on the Bowl stage.
He ticked off ways the district responded during the 13-month campus shutdown, and though he didn’t mention it outright, many moves were the direct result of his business acumen and dealmaking ability, and the relationships he had established in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. They included having local PBS outlets broadcast educational programs for students stuck at home in the early days of the lockdown, and giving every student who needed one an Internet-connected laptop or other device, along with ensuring web access. The LAUSD launched a comprehensive coronavirus testing program, and later began vaccinating students and families—in recent weeks parents have been inundated with robocalls and emails announcing the location of mobile vaccination sites. The relationship bookend came Monday when Beutner revealed a partnership with music moguls Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine; the two will provide seed money for a magnet high school that will open in Leimert Park in 2022.
The applause at the Bowl was often tepid, whether due to the heat or a crowd still skeptical of Beutner. And the critics remain—his relationship with UTLA has always been uneasy, and despite the accomplishments, thousands of students fell behind while stuck in online learning. Some complained that district campuses should have reopened much earlier.
Of course, public figures rarely generate wall-to-wall adoration, and in Beutner’s address one could also hear the skeleton of what could be a mayoral stump speech if he runs to succeed Eric Garcetti next year (he previously said that is not on his agenda, but he also has not ruled it out). He mentioned how during his tenure the LAUSD cut bureaucracy, worked with the union to reduce healthcare costs, and filtered some decision-making from the district mother ship to individual schools. “The view from Beaudry should never obstruct the view from the front of the classroom,” he said, referring to the headquarters building in downtown.
He repeatedly referenced Primary Promise, a pilot program launched during the pandemic to boost literacy for young students; early data has shown it is successful, and it will expand in the fall. There were starry elements, too, as Beutner cited pandemic partnerships that bought students into contact with Titanic director James Cameron and the creators of the Minions. He mentioned a program in which the Fender company gave 7,000 free guitars, basses, and ukuleles to students.
The comments again highlighted the bonds Beutner built over a career and utilized during the pandemic, but they were also presented as a challenge for local leaders and the citizenry, particularly for a school district that primarily serves communities of color, and where an estimated 80 percent of district families live below the poverty line.
“The entire community of Los Angeles needs to step up and support public education,” Beutner said.
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