Being superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District could well be America’s hardest public-sector job. Responsible for educating half a million kids, many of whom struggle to meet state math and English standards, in 1,200 schools and centers spread across 31 municipalities, LAUSD is a sprawling mess. The holy war between the teachers union and charter schools continues unabated while declining enrollment is expected to create severe budget deficits in the next few years.
Navigating this quagmire, the superintendent serves at the pleasure of the school board’s seven elected members. In May they voted to replace outgoing supe Michelle King with Austin Beutner—a 58-year-old former investment banker with a Zelig-like résumé of public service. Here’s a look at his hopscotching career.
At 29 Beutner became the youngest ever partner at the private equity firm Blackstone. As cofounder of investment bank Evercore Partners, he netted more than $100 million when the firm went public in 2006. “Austin is whip-smart, even by standards of top talents in finance,” says Evercore cofounder Roger Altman. “A lot of people are in a hurry, and that impedes negotiating,” he adds, whereas Beutner “always sits back and evaluates all sides of the question.”
First Deputy Mayor
Beutner gained public prominence in 2010 when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed him first deputy mayor. Managing a portfolio of 12 agencies, including the Department of Water and Power, the airports, the ports, and a newly created Economic and Business Policy office, he asked for a salary of $1 a year. Many were impressed by his decisiveness and willingness to take charge and bypass bureaucracy, but he quit after 15 months to run for mayor.
Beutner was expected to run as an outspoken, outsider centrist in the mold of his friend, former mayor Richard Riordan. But his 2012 campaign was muted and lacked teeth. Though he raised an impressive $1.7 million, Beutner failed to generate much popular enthusiasm and dropped out well before the primary (in which Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel were the top finishers). Today he cites “an illness in the family” as the reason for his premature exit.
Los Angeles Times
Then-owner Tribune Publishing named Beutner the paper’s publisher and CEO in 2014. He had a clear vision to revive the Times, centered on buying The San Diego Union-Tribune (creating a near-monopoly on SoCal news) and strengthening ties to the community via newsletters and live events. But he feuded with the Chicago-based owner, who considered the Times merely a large link in their newspaper chain, and was fired after a little more than a year.
Beutner isn’t a complete LAUSD neophyte. In 2012 he and his wife founded the nonprofit Vision to Learn to provide eyeglasses to schoolchildren in need. Last year Superintendent King appointed Beutner, along with union leader Laphonza Butler, to cochair a task force to advise LAUSD on such matters as lagging student attendance and the district’s immense real estate holdings. School board member Nick Melvoin points out that it often takes an outsider to reform big-city school districts, as was the case with New York and Chicago. He says King, a longtime insider, was a “don’t rock the boat” pick, but “the boat needs rocking.” Even so, Beutner seems to be taking a cautious approach for now, stressing the need to build consensus and to “tone down the rhetoric.” But he knows that there will certainly be fights ahead. “This is not a job you sign up for if you’re looking to win a popularity contest,” he says.
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