School & District Management

LA School District Buys Out Chief Academic Officer for $231K

By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times — August 29, 2011 3 min read
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The Los Angeles Unified School District has bought out the contract of its chief academic officer, a key appointee who worked closely with former Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, but who quickly fell out of favor with his successor, John Deasy.

Among other efforts, Judy Elliott oversaw the selection of a new reading program and an early academic intervention initiative. She also developed a new policy—limiting homework to no more than 10% of a student’s grade—that prompted widespread public debate this summer. Deasy ultimately shelved the idea.

Elliott will receive the salary and benefits she would have earned by completing the final year of a contract ending June 30, 2012. She’ll also be compensated for unused vacation days. The package totals $231,164. She joined the district in June 2008.

Members of the Board of Education have not universally supported Elliott but also did not applaud the cost of the buyout. Budget cuts have led the state’s largest school district to lay off thousands of employees in the last three years.

Board member Steve Zimmer said he could tolerate the buyout only because he has learned of a reserve fund set aside for such purposes.

“I’m surprised [the fund] exists but OK with the buyout if it doesn’t cost a single job—if and only if,” he said.

“I don’t believe we should have done it,” said board member Richard Vladovic. “You pay someone a salary and let them work or you fire them. With the money crunch, we shouldn’t buy them out.”

Vladovic also praised Elliott: “I thought she provided a lot of leadership. I’m sorry to see her go. We argued, but it was about the right things.”

One of Elliott’s goals was to align measures of student performance to portray more precisely what students know. She wanted to end both grade inflation and “deflation"—penalizing students for non-academic factors. One policy now being tested gives students a higher grade for improved or strong performance on state standardized tests and Advanced Placement exams.

The homework policy became official in May, but in July, Deasy put it on hold pending public review and input. School board members criticized Elliott for not bringing the policy forward for public discussion and their approval.

But Elliott had alerted the board and Deasy in writing of her intended direction on homework in March, and apparently no one objected at that time. Deasy, then a deputy superintendent, did not assume the top job until the next month. Former Supt. Cortines said he was fully aware of the impending policy, and others should have been as well. He added that he advised Elliott to confirm that the new policy had Deasy’s support.

Cortines credited Elliott with being “tenacious in improving academic achievement.”

Academics will now be overseen by recent Deasy hire Jaime Aquino.

Cortines also had backed Elliott’s aggressive push on academic initiatives within the bureaucracy, even after some senior administrators complained that Elliott had never been a school principal and therefore lacked crucial perspective. (Elliott had, however, been a senior school district official in Long Beach and in Portland, Ore.)

Elliott ultimately achieved a following among some principals and teachers.

“She was willing to listen to different perspectives and made some really positive changes for students,” said Antonio Camacho, the principal at 135th Street Elementary and a member of a task force of principals that Elliott established.

In a letter to board members, Elliott wrote that, “at the request of Supt. Deasy, I have resigned to allow him to assemble his own team.”

She added: “Despite state budget cuts—that I would characterize as immoral—we have much to celebrate. Test scores are up, dropout rates are down. Attendance is up, and suspensions are down. The first-time rates of students passing the high school graduation exam are up.

“There is also much more to be done. We can’t rest until every student has access to a robust and rigorous education.”

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Copyright (c) 2011, The Los Angeles Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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