Driving Mr. Deasy--Straight Into a Contract Extension

MAILANDER’S LA-Over ninety percent of the teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District have expressed little or no confidence in Superintendent John Deasy.  But fifty percent of the LAUSD's Board--three-and-a-half out of seven members--have "satisfactory" confidence in the beleaguered Superintendent, and have enabled him to keep his job a while longer. 

And as there's no such thing as half a board member, Deasy will continue to lead the District. 

While the fate of Deasy was being decided by the District earlier this week, three key stories regarding the fate of LAUSD School Superintendent John Deasy dropped in rapid-fire succession in the LA Times across a week's time, leaving teachers, administrators, staffers, parents, and even Washington scratching collective heads as to what is really going on at the top.  Five hours of private evaluations of Deasy by the Board, who had little of substance to say after the churning and burning, did not help clarify things. 

But this is the LAUSD, and this is a big contract, and these are big corporate stakes.  You know not only that they're going to come up with something satisfying to nobody, but that damn few people are going to even know what's going on.

Beloved of types like Eli Broad and Bill Gates, Deasy, a key cog in the nation's public-to-corporate education schemes--was tendering his resignation, purportedly privately, just last week. Then Deasy under some minor consequent fire quickly marshaled hundreds of proponents to stalk the doubters.  

Finally, the man with the plan was grudgingly awarded a new contract for a tepidly expressed if "satisfactory" performance to-date. 

Did Deasy leak his own wildly off-base resignation story as a gambit? The way the corporate ranks closed so quickly after the story broke, it sure looked like the fire department was on the scene of the fire unusually early. 

The first Times story--"LA Schools Supt. John Deasy to Resign"--had barely-veiled Deasy critic Howard Blume as the sole name on the byline, and quoted board president Richard Vladovic spokesman Mike Trujillo as saying "We are shocked" by a letter Deasy sent to LAUSD Board members stating an intention to resign in February.

Deasy, of course, never intended to resign at all, or so it now seems. But running with the leak, the Times was stuck with saying he was, until someone said otherwise.

The second key Times story--one in which Teresa Watanabe got the lead byline, with Howard Blume in the passenger seat this time--was inessential to the narrative but lent voice to nearly all of Deasy's supporters--so many of them the kind of counterfeit activists representing groups funded by Broad or Gates or other captains of contemporary educational businesses.

And the third Times story--a make-up story, with Blume re-taking the wheel and Stephen Ceasar and Watanabe along for the ride, carefully chronicled all the Deasy voices against the UTLA, and confused even top people at the District with regards to how much or little to hope for in the near future.

The Times didn't really blow the first story--Deasy had indeed told a few board members, not just Dr. V., he was resigning, and the leak could have come from anywhere. But the Times did really blow the thundering "BREAKING" banner under which it ran, which sent Twitter ablaze and various public school agitprop throngs from UTLA Headquarters on Wilshire to the LAUSD Board room on Beaudry into offensive and defensive convulsions.  The Times, in short, had taken some bait, and now the corporate forces were set to reel the hooked fish in.

The news that Deasy had come close to resigning was purportedly supposed to "embargo" (a term much loved by the District's press office, in which journalists are asked to write about things only after they actually happen) until after his pending evaluation. But someone--likely a Deasy supporter, not a UTLA supporter--leaked it to the Times even ahead of the hopes of the District's press office embargoing the phony news in a more cautious way than the way it broke.

A leak nothing more than a telling of truth at a time that is inconvenient to someone. In this case, the leak was far from inconvenient to Deasy--it was, in fact, inconvenient to the UTLA.  The Times began calling, confirmed, and that's when they had enough to go with the story the first time. 

Three days later, Team Deasy says that all these heavyweights are asking him to stay. But other than Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the voices were not really heavies, nor were they especially generous with their praise.  In fact, when the prospective resignation story broke, Deasy had dared his long-time supporters to offer something contrary.

It wasn't hard to find local voices calling for stability if not reinstatement.  And the key one was Mayor Eric Garcetti, a man who doesn't like bumpy roads.  We already know that Garcetti is a Deasy backer only because Education Secretary Duncan is, at least nominally, and LA's ever-obsequious Mayor will do anything at all to please Washington. (Despite its social media mastery, the Obama Administration is said not to like the kind of clowning around with the stripe of jokey Facebook fotobombing that Garcetti team does).

Whether Duncan himself really likes Deasy is dicey at best, and he expressed caution in his forced if faint praise: Duncan told the LA Times "I don't think anybody would claim victory here, but L.A. is absolutely going in the right direction."

It was almost impossible not to go in the right direction after bottoming out with a succession of problem people in the Superintendent's spot over the past decade.  But beyond the faint praise for Deasy, Duncan's statement was a severe slap in the face of LAUSD's teachers, whose influence on the LAUSD is stable and growing as slowly but steadily as the test scores are. 

When it comes to high stakes testing, results are better in some spots, flatline in others; but when it comes to classroom instruction, classroom esteem, and teacher confidence that kids are being educated for life rather than for tests, the numbers are deplorable, and the teachers represented by Warren Fletcher are tired of their piñata status at the Board level.

The Mayor, chasing various LA tails if few real power brokers around Washington, booking conference rooms for photo ops with friendly LA faces, doesn't appear to have all the information in pocket either, not even about Duncan's true feelings regarding Deasy.  But Garcetti did talk to Duncan early in the week to get a handle on what the Administration's wishes for the situation were--and followed orders accordingly.

Whether or not Garcetti's hope for stability via reinstating Deasy was a smart political read of the situation is much in doubt.  Garcetti can scarcely afford to lose more teachers, and his appointment of minimally-educated Parent Revolution factotum Lydia Grant to a civic commission has left many teacher apologists outraged. The Garcetti angle even had normally avuncular David Tokofsky tongue-tied. 

Most district watchers focused on the initial leak that triggered the Deasy contract gambit. Alexander Russo, a writer who maintains a blog "This Week in Education," insisted that "The two main theories behind the last few days of tumult and rumor in LA are (a) that Deasy authorized a leak to scare the board into keeping him (and it nearly got out of hand) or (b) that Deasy opponents (most likely Mike Trujillo in Richard Vladovic's office) leaked the story to try and create momentum around an early Deasy departure." 

As though it weren't odd enough to try to finger an individual for leaking the story about Deasy's unlikely resignation, Russo went further still and pondered why it didn't "work." "So which was it and why didn't the leak work?" Russo ultimately asked, answering his own question with "it turned out that not everyone is as focused on getting rid of Deasy as is Vladovic and the teachers union." 

If that wasn't evidence enough of scapegoating--a specific finger-pointing turning up at a tangential blog--it also ignored the most vital matter: not who leaked and why but whether the Obama Administration actually has a dog in the hunt or whether they were simply being polite when offering their tepid support of a polarizing figure who happens to please corporate power brokers much more than on-the-ground and in-the-classroom instructors. 

One thing I've heard from both sides is that Deasy would have gotten the exact same evaluation whether the resignation story had leaked or not. But the leak gave Deasy an opportunity to be a resume-stretching diva yet again--which is exactly what the District knew about him when it hired him in the first place. 

Reports that Deasy simultaneously submitted a document pitching what it would cost the District in the event of him being shown the door are not encouraging. And a quickly added Board agenda item regarding the prospective liability issues involving Deasy's departure were the obvious result of some pure corporate-culled theater, the kind of item a ruthless CEO presents a board of shareholders when he's hit with an ouster attempt. This is the type of thing you do to save your skin, not the kind of thing you do "for the sake of the kids." 

While the precise point of the leak remains unknown, the highly calibrated response it generated is compelling. There can be no doubt that the Deasy-resignation leak only helped his corporate backers close ranks at the time of his coming tepid evaluation. But a tepid evaluation is as good as an enthusiastic one if it leads to extending a contract. 

The Board and the teachers will now be obliged to work with such media machinations for at least a couple more years--years that will enable Deasy's corporate cronies to close deals on at least a few more choice plums and a few more underperforming schools.


(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.





Vol 11 Issue 88

Pub: Nov 1, 2013