The resignation of Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner has raised the specter of whether the pandemic will contribute to an accelerating pace of turnover in the leadership of the state’s and the nation’s school districts.
Superintendent turnover is a fact of life, especially in large urban districts, and especially in Los Angeles Unified. By the end of this school year, half of California’s 30 largest districts will have new superintendents, compared to those in place in 2017.
But education leaders worry that the pandemic will lead to a further outflow.
Just a day before Beutner sent a letter to the Board of Education announcing his resignation, his Twitter account gave no inkling of what he was planning. It showed Beutner dancing along with kids and riding a tricycle at a school campus that had just opened for in-person instruction — something that few had predicted would happen during the current school year.
So why would he resign at just the moment when things seem to be turning the corner both on the pandemic front, and after overcoming huge challenges early in his tenure, including a bitter teachers strike?
In an interview with EdSource, Beutner acknowledged that “without question” the pressures of the pandemic played a role in his resignation — on top of the multiple pressures that existed beforehand.
“It has been 15-hour days, seven days a week for more than a year, and quite frankly, for almost three years,” he said. “I’m unfortunately or fortunately wired that way. I understand when I take on a commitment, I will do what I have to do to make sure I deliver on my end.”
He said that the board had tried to convince him to stay on and offered to extend his contract, which was due to expire in June. “There was unanimity (on the board) on that,” he said.
But he declined their offer, he said. “I served my time, and I think this is the right time to transition,” he said. “I don’t think me staying for six months or a year would make a difference.”
He said he had to balance his own responsibilities with those of the school district. “I’m a son; I’m a husband; I’m a father. I have four children,” he said. One of his children is a high school junior, and two are in college. They had to deal with the distance learning challenges, both individually and as a family.
The pandemic has increased the pressures on superintendents immeasurably, says Carl Cohn, the former superintendent of Long Beach Unified and San Diego Unified, who has mentored numerous superintendents throughout California.
“People are absolutely exhausted in this role,” he said. The emergence of the parent-driven “open schools” movement has exacerbated the situation, he said, “where a sinister motivation is ascribed to your every move.”
“I don’t think I have seen that before,” he said. “That takes a huge toll on a superintendent trying to meet both public health demands and the desire to get kids back to school for in-person learning.”
Becca Bracy Knight, executive director of The Broad Center, which runs professional development programs for current and aspiring urban school system leaders, echoed that view. “Add to the logistical challenges of a pandemic on top of the overwhelming logistical challenges of simply running a district in a normal year, and it becomes especially daunting,” she said.
Pedro Noguera, dean of the USC Rossier School of Education, said he was shocked that Beutner was leaving at this moment, having overcome major challenges early in his tenure. “I thought he was in a great position to make some real changes,” adding that Beutner came into the position not to “maintain the status quo” but to be “a change maker and to make a difference.”
Noguera believes that the pressures from strong teachers’ unions and pressures from full-time salaried board members, who themselves have a staff of 6 or 7, make the Los Angeles Unified superintendency especially challenging.
Beutner said that while he has had a “good, collaborative” relationship with the board, and dealing with it “wasn’t a factor in the timing of this decision; it’s a factor for anyone who is superintendent of L.A. Unified.”
He noted that he has a staff of about 10, while the school board collectively has a combined staff of 55 or 60.
He said that achieving “role clarity” was especially important in any superintendent’s job.
“It would be an interesting exercise for all boards, not just L.A. Unified, to clearly define what they believe their role to be and the role of the superintendent,” he said. “And that ought to be shared publicly.”
John Rogers, a UCLA professor of education, says that if Beutner was going to leave, in some ways leaving now “makes some sense.”
Beutner, who came to the position with background in finance and philanthropy, is not an educator, which was one of the criticisms of the decision by the board to hire him three years ago.
But he has done an impressive job managing the district through the pandemic crisis, Rogers said: “His skill sets were best matched to the job before him, centering on logistics.”
Beutner should be given credit for the massive task of getting devices to all students, for example, and “the moral vision” for ensuring students and families had access to meals — 123 million of them during the pandemic.
“I am sure he is extraordinarily tired,” Rogers said.
In fact, Rogers said, Beutner may be mirroring what almost everyone in the district is experiencing to some degree or another.
“Across the system, there is a good deal of fatigue at this moment that we need to account for,” he said. That includes students, parents and teachers, as well as principals. “I think that one of the tasks across the system moving forward is going to be how to restart and bring new energy, when all the calls are to do more, with all the additional resources, but how do you do that when people are feeling stretched already?”
David Tokofsky, a former school board member and informal adviser to current ones, said that he wished that Beutner would stay on.
“There is no question in my mind that if he would stay for seven years or a decade, the place would be better off,” he said. “The district has more money than anyone could imagine. There is a once in a lifetime chance to keep turbulence and the rhetoric of disruption down. Everyone knows his foibles, but he was doing well for the betterment of all of its kids.”
Asked if there is anything the board could offer him anything to stay on, along the lines of what the board did in San Francisco when it recently convinced its superintendent Vincent Matthews to rescind his resignation, Beutner demurred.
“If we can make it work, I aspire to throw out the first pitch for the Dodgers,” he quipped, suggesting that his mind is made up.
As for achieving the continuity in leadership that has eluded the district for many years, he encouraged the board to select someone already in a leadership role in the district to continue the work he started that had shown results, including the Primary Promise, promoting reading in kindergarten through 2nd grade.
“One of the things that I’m proud of is we’ve brought up the next generation, put them in positions of responsibility throughout the school district,” he said. “And they’re doing fantastic work.”
EdSource writer Betty Márquez Rosales and John Fensterwald contributed to this story.
To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.