Investment Banker Austin Beutner Chosen to Head L.A. Schools

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Los Angeles

Investment banker and former Los Angeles deputy mayor Austin Beutner on Tuesday was named superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District despite his lack of experience in the education field.

School board members voted 5-2 to hire Beutner (BYOOT'-ner), 58, as head of the nation's second-largest school district. The $350,000-a-year job comes with a driver and security and will involve shepherding a district facing long-term budget problems, declining enrollment, and competition from charter schools.

Before the vote a series of parents spoke in support of giving the job to Vivian Ekchian, who has been serving as interim superintendent. Ekchian stepped in following the departure of Michelle King, who went on medical leave in September and announced in January she had cancer and would retire.

Austin Beutner, founder of the Vision To Learn program, arrives at Jefferson Elementary School in Sacramento, Calif., in 2013.
Austin Beutner, founder of the Vision To Learn program, arrives at Jefferson Elementary School in Sacramento, Calif., in 2013.
—Rich Pedroncelli/AP-File

Beutner, a former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, has no background leading a school or school district. Critics said the decision was engineered by a majority block of board members who support an expansion of privately run charter schools within the district.

United Teachers Los Angeles slammed the choice of Beutner.

"This has been one of the shortest, least transparent, and least inclusive superintendent selection processes ever for a major urban district in the United States," the union said.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti congratulated Beutner, who said it was "my distinct honor and privilege" to lead a district he said was "full of students bursting with potential."

In his statement, Beutner called students "the future of our community" and said he looked forward to working with the school board, parents, employees, "labor partners," and the community.

Board members George McKenna and Scott Schmerlson voted against hiring Beutner.

"He has never taught in a public school, never managed a public school, has no instructional background, and has never worked for a school district of any size," Schmerlson said in a statement explaining his vote.

Beutner has had two direct and recent interactions with L.A. Unified, according to the Los Angeles Times . The first is through the nonprofit group he founded, Vision to Learn, which provides glasses to low-income students. The second is through an outside task force, which he co-chairs, that so far has made suggestions for improving student attendance, getting more revenue out of district-owned real estate, and operating more transparently.

His supporters say Beutner's financial background makes him the right choice.

A primary focus of King's mission had been to increase enrollment by trying to win students back from charter schools. Charters are privately operated public schools that compete with the school system for students and the funds they bring in. Their rapid growth has been a major factor in the district's financial woes because state and federal funding is mostly based on enrollment.

Beutner and members of the board majority seem unlikely to continue targeting charter schools, the Times said. They are expected to take steps to encourage their growth as part of a range of options for families.

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That means the district has to look to other ways to increase revenue—a goal held in common with the prior board—and may try to reduce district spending by shrinking the traditional school system. Savings could come through employee layoffs, closing campuses, and freezing or reducing salaries and benefit expenses, the newspaper said.

In 2010, Beutner became first deputy mayor of Los Angeles under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, overseeing business and job development. He was part of the Villaraigosa administration for about a year.

In 2014, Beutner co-chaired the 2020 Commission, which made recommendations for the future of Los Angeles. He then became publisher and chief executive of the Times, but was fired after a year over disagreements about the newspaper's direction.

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