Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner this morning informed the seven-member Board of Education that he will not seek to extend his contract, and will step down from his position on June 30.
The surprise move comes three years after he took the top spot at the country’s second-largest school district, and as some of the nearly 500,000 K-12 students are returning to campus after more than a year away due to the coronavirus. Beutner was the chief architect of the return built around strict health and safety protocols at all campuses, with components including installing new air-filtration systems, enacting a comprehensive testing program, and offering vaccinations for families at 25 schools in high-needs communities.
In a letter to the board, Beutner reflected on Robert Baden-Powell’s adage that one should “leave this world a little better than you found it.”
In an interview, Beutner told Los Angeles, “I’ve accomplished more than I thought we could do in just three years, and most fundamentally we’ve rebuilt trust with those who work in schools and the families we serve, and that was missing when I joined the district. I think we have made great progress, on both the family side and the employee side.”
Beutner’s letter said a new superintendent should be in charge when the academic year begins in August and suggested that his successor “can be found amongst the current team.” He added that “the leadership ranks of Los Angeles Unified have never been stronger,” but did not offer any specific recommendation as to whom the board should select. The school board frequently does an expansive search before picking a new leader.
Beutner’s own path to the superintendent’s office was far from traditional. A onetime New York investment banker who made partner at the firm Blackstone when he was 29, and later co-founded the venture capital firm Evercore, he burst into public consciousness in Los Angeles in 2010, when he took a job as a top deputy to then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and was put in charge of a dozen city departments. He stayed for a year, briefly ran for mayor, and in 2014 became publisher of the Los Angeles Times. That too was a brief stint.
He has been active in civic matters, co-chairing a high-profile panel that offered a suite of recommendations on how to improve local government. He founded the nonprofit Vision to Learn, which has provided free eyeglasses to more than 250,000 children across the country who otherwise might not get them.
That civic involvement led him to be part of a panel advising Michelle King, who became LAUSD superintendent in 2016. However, King became ill and stepped away from the job the following year (she died in 2019). Beutner sought the open position, and a divided school board hired him in May 2018.
His road was rocky from the outset, as his first major priority was orchestrating a new contract with the powerful union United Teachers Los Angeles. Negotiations were tense, and in January 2019 teachers went out on a six-day strike that stoked passions across the region. The deal the union ultimately accepted was not much different than what district negotiators had offered before the walkout.
That would prove to be almost a low hurdle compared to the challenges to come. As reports of the novel coronavirus began circulating in February 2020, Beutner instructed district staff to plan for the unprecedented. Campuses closed after class on March 13. It would be more than 13 months until students next set foot in the classroom.
During the pandemic the school board granted Beutner broad emergency authority allowing him to make significant decisions quickly, and he used his contacts and employed his deal-making skills on numerous fronts. He arranged for laptops or other internet-connected devices to be provided to every student who needed one, and in the early days of the closure he worked with PBS on a plan to broadcast educational programming to students suddenly stuck at home. He enabled the district to offer a bevy of online summer learning options. Perhaps most importantly, he launched a program to offer meals at campuses to any child or adult—by the time schools reopened, more than 123 million meals had been served.
He also worked with UTLA leaders to ensure that all teachers and other on-campus staff had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated before schools reopened.
Still, the road has been difficult, with some parents complaining that schools should have reopened long ago. There has also been widespread acknowledgement of learning loss, with particular concern about students in the 80 percent of district families who live at or below the poverty line. Last November, Beutner stated that middle and high school students were seeing a surge of Ds and Fs, a result of the difficulty in teachers connecting with their pupils.
Even the push to return students to campus has yielded mixed results, with a split plan that has elementary age children in classrooms for three hours a day, five days a week. High school students who return to campus spend most of their days in a single room with headphones on, still learning by Zoom. The limited interaction is an effort to prevent further spread of the virus.
The result is that only about 17 percent of high school students are coming back on campus, compared to 39 percent of elementary school students.
During his time at LAUSD, Beutner embarked on bureaucratic and cost-saving endeavors. In the letter to the board he described saving about $150 million a year by reducing central office expenses, funds that were reallocated to schools. He also touted the success of the recently launched Primary Promise, which aims to give elementary school students a foundation in literacy, math, and other skills. Beutner said an initial group of 2,500 high-needs first graders who had struggled to read were able to catch up with their classmates in half a year.
Beutner said he does not have plans for what comes next, that after three years of 15-hour days, and working seven days a week, family time is in order. Although some political observers have suggested that he may run for mayor of Los Angeles in 2022, he said, “Elected office is not high on my list.”
Even with students returning to campus, his departure comes at a critical time. The school board is discussing whether to extend the next academic year as a means to help students catch up.
When asked about departing even as much work remains to recover from the impacts of the coronavirus, Beutner said, “Part of public service ought to be trying to get the hardest parts done. Maybe that’s the most impact one can make in service of any type to the community. If you get the hard done, you provide the foundation for more progress to continue, and I think we’ve gotten the hard done.
“Of course, there is lots more to do, but we put the foundation in place for continued progress.”
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