After a three-year tenure as the superintendent of the nation’s second-largest school district, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner announced Wednesday that he will step down from his position when his contract ends on June 30.
EdSource’s Betty Márquez Rosales and Louis Freedberg talked with Beutner on April 22, a day before the Board of Education named Megan Reilly, the district’s deputy superintendent of business services and operations, to be interim superintendent. The following is a lightly edited transcript of key parts of their conversation:
EdSource: What role did the pandemic play into your decision to step down at this point?
Beutner: It plays a role. It has been 15-hour days, seven days a week for more than a year, quite frankly almost three years. But without question it plays a role.
I think if you widen the aperture, it is not just reading, writing, arithmetic. It’s food insecurity, housing insecurity, mental wellness, the digital divide: all of those challenges. And what has happened in Los Angeles Unified is we’ve had to address all of them often by ourselves. When you have a public school system that has been starved of funding, starved of resources for decades now, the symptoms you would most often talk about was class size is too big or school libraries, librarians. But let’s widen the aperture now and look at what we’ve had to do over the past year. It starts with food.
EdSource: The stress and these long days — was that the main reason that you decided this was the time to step down?
Beutner: The board approached me a couple of months ago and said, “We’d like you to stay on, and let’s keep this going.” At that time I said, “We’re in the thick of this. Like a boat in a storm. We don’t know how we can open schools, when we can open schools. We don’t know if this vaccine will become probable.” I said, ‘”Let me keep doing what I am doing. Focus on the task at hand. And let’s have this conversation a bit further down the road.”
Now we are a bit further down the road, and we are reopening schools in what I believe to be the safest way possible. We’re doing it the right way. We’re doing it with the support of our labor partners. We have 86,000 employees who are touting the virtue of safety in our schools to the school community. And that’s sharply at odds with some other larger districts. Seeing that foundation in place, being at schools over the last several weeks as I’ve been, to see the support we have of those who work in schools and the communities we serve, led me to believe this is a time we can do a handoff in the right way with a sense of progress.
EdSource: Some people are concerned that this instability in leadership is not good. What do you say to that?
Beutner: I think continuity of leadership is critical to any well-functioning and successful organization. Absolutely critical. And therein lies the challenge for school boards. This is not a unique challenge to Los Angeles Unified.
Continuity of leadership is not always or shouldn’t always be looked at through the prism of who is in charge. Part of continuity is not just who the next person is, but it’s the commitment to stay with what is working or change something that’s not working. But change for change’s sake, which sometimes comes with new superintendents or some boards, that’s also part of the challenge — the notion that each change should mean “Let’s start from scratch, let’s just assume we don’t need what was working.”
So I hope the board will strive for continuity. Part of continuity of leadership is to take someone from the leadership team who knows what we’re doing, who believes in what we’re doing, who helped develop these plans, who are implementing them today. That’s another way to solve the challenge of continuity.
EdSource: Did the school board try convincing you to stay?
Beutner: The board tried to convince me. They offered me an extension. They wanted me to stay. There was unanimity around that. I served my time, and I think this is the right time to transition. I don’t think me staying six months or a year makes that difference in… I’m a son, I’m a husband, I’m a father. And so balancing my own responsibilities with the school district, this is the right time for the transition.
EdSource: In your role as a son, father, and husband, what has the pandemic been like for you?
Beutner: This has been an experience none of us could have known what it would be like. Each day is different. I think for the first time we’re able to see the horizon. It is a sense of relief to me, but we’re not there yet. Look at the communities we serve; they’re not actually there yet. I was at an elementary school recently with 500 students and 50 staff or so. Two students lost parents. Six students lost grandparents. Two staff lost parents. Ten lost lives in a very small school community. We’re all living with that. I also know people who have passed from Covid. That’s not the unique experience. I may be somewhat of a public figure. I may have a job with certainly a set of responsibilities for a lot of other families. I have my own as well. It’s a time for all of us to understand healing will take time.
We all know people who’ve lost their lives; we all know people who lost work. I’m more fortunate than most. My family is healthy. I have a nice roof over my head. I know where my next meal is coming from. So many of the communities we serve haven’t had that same journey during Covid.
EdSource: One of the unique things about L.A. is that you have a full-time school board, each with his or own staff — some call them “mini superintendents.” Was that a factor in making your job more difficult or thinking that it was time to move on?
Beutner: It wasn’t a factor in the timing of this decision. It’s a factor for anyone who is superintendent of L.A. Unified. To give you some sense of the magnitude, the board collectively has about 55 or 60 staff and the superintendent has about 10. That’s not what factored into my decision now, but certainly it is part of the challenge anyone faces as superintendent of Los Angeles Unified.
By the way, you don’t just have changing superintendents, you have changing boards. It would be an interesting exercise for all boards to clearly define what they believe their role to be and the role of the superintendent. And that ought to be shared publicly by every school board in America.
EdSource: You had a three-year contract. Was it your thinking when you came in that you would stay for just three years?
Beutner: In most of my career, if I understood what I’d be doing tomorrow, and I could see a few months ahead, I’d view that as enough of a direction. I’d say three years has been 30 in dog years. It has been nonstop full-time 15 hours a day, three years worth. I’m unfortunately or fortunately wired that way. I understand that when I take on a commitment, I will do what I have to do to make sure I deliver on my end. I’m proud of the fact that nobody in the school district works harder than I have. There are a lot of people who have worked right alongside me. But ask my colleagues, I do the work.
EdSource: Are there people on your team who can step in?
Beutner: Absolutely. One of the things that I’m proud of over the last three years; we’ve brought up the next generation, put them in positions of responsibility throughout the school district, and they’re doing fantastic work.
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