SYNDICATED COLUMN: Austin Beutner: L.A.’s Creepy New School Superintendent Keeps Failing Up, Leaving Destruction in His Wake

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The Los Angeles Unified School District faces big problems. Magnet schools and second language programs have failed to slow declining enrollment; each of the 12,000 kids who pulls out this year means less state funding. The sprawling bureaucracy seems unable or unwilling to respond to chronic bullying centered in the elementary schools. L.A. United is in the peculiar position of raising its budget — most recently to $7.5 billion — while still having to cut back support personnel.

L.A. Unified requires strong, decisive leadership by an education expert in it for the long haul. The last thing the district and its 640,000 students need is a narcissist dilettante with one agenda: prettying up his resume. But that’s what it’s getting in the form of Austin Buetner.

The shadowy 58-year-old hedge fund billionaire and philanthropist, a self-declared political nonpartisan (but Bill Clinton ally) who began accruing his fortune making shady investments amid the ashes of the collapsed Soviet Union under Boris Yeltsin and co-founded the shady boutique investment and consulting company Evercore Partners, recently got the nod from the school board to take charge of L.A. United’s nearly one thousand schools as superintendent. Scratch the thin surface of Beutner’s resume, however, and what you find is a Hillary Clinton-like predilection for failing upward.

“Cynics might look at Beutner’s conquest of Los Angeles — the fastest takeover of a major global city since the Visigoths sacked Rome — and suggest that Southern California’s institutions must be awfully weak to keep seeking the services of the same finance guy,” Joe Mathews sardonically observed in The San Francisco Chronicle. “They might question why he keeps getting jobs while only staying in previous ones for a short time (a year or so) and without producing a record of sustained success.”

Beutner’s first major foray into public service was as deputy mayor, but he only lasted a year at City Hall. He quit to run for mayor, but gave that up when it became clear that his candidacy had fewer takers than New Coke.

In 2014 Beutner, who had no journalistic experience and as far as we know has never even delivered a newspaper, was named publisher of The Los Angeles Times, following more than a decade of brutal budget cuts, declining circulation and diminishing relevancy. No one but the man himself knows why he wanted the job; Southland political observers theorized that he wanted to leverage the editorial page to run for mayor again or perhaps for California governor. To be fair, no one man could have fixed what ailed the Times after its long gutting — but if such a miraculous creature existed, it wasn’t Austin Beutner.

The problem as always for Beutner is that while he knows how to slap backs and twist arms in the toniest corridors of power, he has no natural political constituency amid the electorate. He “lacks…name recognition,” the Times drily reported during Beutner’s aborted 2011 mayoral run.

Disclosure: Violating journalism’s traditional wall between the editorial and business sides of the operation, Beutner fired me as the newspaper’s editorial cartoonist as a favor to his biggest political ally, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, because I had made fun of the cops. Overeager to please the fuzz, he even published a pair of articles about me that pretty much defined the word libel. I’m suing him and the Times for defamation and wrongful termination.

Beutner’s dealings with the LAPD, whose pension fund purchased substantial shares of the Times’ parent company during the short Beutner era, may be one of many moving parts of what school board member Scott Schmerelson, who voted against Beutner for the superintendent post, was referencing when he complained that the board majority failed “to exercise due diligence regarding Mr. Beutner’s lengthy and tangled business affairs.” Quoting Schmerelson, the Times lazily allowed: “Schmerelson did not cite an example, but Beutner, who is wealthy, has wide-ranging investments and a complex business background.”

To say the least.

Just over a year after taking the helm at Times Mirror Square, Beutner brazenly attempted a failed boardroom coup to seize both the Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune from the clutches of the Chicago-based Tribune Publishing (now known as Tronc). The Tribbies were so appalled that they ordered him unceremoniously removed with his banker’s box full of office supplies, turning off his Times email account so he had to send his farewell via Facebook.

Now this creepy dude is running the schools. Which prompts a few questions.

Beutner is loaded. He doesn’t need the job. Why does he want it? (Although he’s apparently not so much of a billionaire that he turned down the job’s $350,000-a-year paycheck.)

Will he last more than a year this time?

Will there be parent-political blowback from the, to be charitable, less than transparent way that he won the support of the school board over Vivian Ekchian, the incumbent interim superintendent and career educator?

Asked the first question, Beutner responded, as he often does, with a stream of pablum: “It’s about the kids. My own roots, my mom was a teacher, my dad worked very, very hard to make sure that I had a great public education. It’s that common place — it’s the community place, the commonplace, the community connects. And if we can provide students that same opportunity I had with a great public education, what a gift, what an honor to be able to work towards that.”

In other words, who knows what Austin wants? The most obvious answer is that Beutner is a wannabe political animal who recognizes his biggest political problem: no one knows who he is. Being perceived as having turned around the schools might be leveraged into a mayoral or even gubernatorial run. Perhaps he’ll want to connect his business allies to lucrative contracts supplying the district; if so, he would merely be following up such fiascoes as the district’s 2013 plan to issue iPads to every student, which devolved into scandal. Beutner is a proponent of charter schools, but he faces a dilemma there: every student who transfers to a charter school takes away more revenue from the traditional institutions.

The Beutner-aligned Southern California media universe isn’t spilling much ink on the aftermath of the Ekchian snub. But a lot of parents, not to mention women reveling in the #MeToo movement, felt rubbed the wrong way by the appointment of a rich white male educational neophyte over a woman with 32 years of experience working within L.A. Unified, where she began as a teacher assistant.

“The man you’re about to choose has no history of success anywhere,” warned ex-school board president Jeff Horton. “What that says to all of the educators that you depend on to deliver your product is, ‘We don’t really care whether a person knows about education. We have other criteria — which are connected with our donors and our backers.’” The majority in the 5-2 vote received a total of $15 million in donations from the charter lobby.

One thing is certain: even for a miracle worker, it will take a lot longer than Beutner’s usual year-long tenure to demonstrate significant improvement in the district. Times columnist Steve Lopez lists the issues: “Falling enrollment, rising pension and healthcare costs, academic struggles, billions in deferred building maintenance at hundreds of schools, political division on the board and an ongoing philosophical difference between charter school supporters and those who believe they are draining traditional schools staffed by union teachers.”

Here’s the rub: even if Beutner somehow manages to make a dent in L.A. Unified’s longstanding problems, there’s no metric in place to judge success that everyone agrees upon. Knowing Beutner — as you can imagine, I’ve studied him closely — I’d lay better-than-even odds that, as ever in search of a quick score to pump up his political prospects, he’ll throw up his hands and walk away again before long.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

26 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Austin Beutner: L.A.’s Creepy New School Superintendent Keeps Failing Up, Leaving Destruction in His Wake

  1. Re quote: “The majority in the 5-2 vote received a total of $15 million in donations from the charter lobby.”

    Is Ted only pretending not to know why a guy like this totally “unqualified” monster/creep got the job?

    In case it’s still not clear: he IS qualified to do precisely what he was installed to do – destroy local public education. Note: this is NOT only a local project.

    • Local public education is not a success story.

      One of the problems is the way it is run: top-down. It is like a medieval fiefdom, with a superintendent, lots of assistant superintendents for all sorts of things, lots and lots of administrators and then, staff. This is an antiquated model. The superintendent position needs to be done away with. The position calls for fiscal responsibility and they are not responsible.

      Frankly, public education has brought this threat upon itself by not holding the line when it should and by embracing change when it should not. A big problem is apathetic students.

      We waste a lot of money. Look at your tax bill. And then we want more.

      Perhaps those who are using the system should contribute more. That would address student apathy.

    • > Is Ted only pretending not to know why a guy like this totally “unqualified” monster/creep got the job?

      I love the question, and note that it can be applied to multiple overpaid and underperforming public school employees..

      • @falco

        When Janus goes through, the public sector unions will take a hit, allowing for further erosion of the public system.

        The public school system only works well, in the sense of having standards and enforcing rules, in well-heeled towns. You may not like the sense of authoritarianism, but other systems, such as LA., are in a free fall that no one can change.

        Remember Freedom Riders? That teacher left the classroom. Those in it for the long haul give up, worn down by the system.

        @Crazy H–shouldn’t you be looking for a job instead of spending so much time on Ted’s blog?

  2. “But there’s a reason. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason that it will never, ever, ever be fixed. It’s never gonna get any better. Don’t look for it. Be happy with what you got. Because the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the real owners, the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought and paid for the senate, the congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear. They got you by the balls. They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying, lobbying, to get what they want. Well, we know what they want. They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want: They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. Thats against their interests. Thats right. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around a kitchen table to figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. They don’t want that. You know what they want? They want obedient workers. Obedient workers. People who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork, and just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it, and now they’re coming for your Social Security money. They want your retirement money. They want it back so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street, and you know something? They’ll get it. They’ll get it all from you, sooner or later, ’cause they own this fucking place. It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it. You and I are not in the big club. And by the way, it’s the same big club they use to beat you over the head with all day long when they tell you what to believe. All day long beating you over the head in their media telling you what to believe, what to think and what to buy. The table is tilted folks. The game is rigged, and nobody seems to notice, nobody seems to care. Good honest hard-working people — white collar, blue collar, it doesn’t matter what color shirt you have on — good honest hard-working people continue — these are people of modest means — continue to elect these rich cocksuckers who don’t give a fuck about them. They don’t give a fuck about you. They don’t give a fuck about you. They don’t care about you at all — at all — at all. And nobody seems to notice, nobody seems to care. That’s what the owners count on; the fact that Americans will probably remain willfully ignorant of the big red, white and blue dick that’s being jammed up their assholes everyday. Because the owners of this country know the truth: it’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

    ― George Carlin

  3. @Crazy H

    You, give me work to do? You’re funny.

    You’re not ready to carry my helmet. The only thing you may be ready to do is mop the locker room.

    Now, folks, let’s ignore Crazy H, who is going to bed when it is still light out.

    Back to Ted’s column.

    It is insulting to everyone, parents, teachers students, that Beutner got this job. He doesn’t know education law; he doesn’t know the culture of any of those schools; and while he may know finance, he doesn’t know school finance. Having a mother who was a school teacher is not a qualification.

    • I’m sorry Mr. Awesome Teacher, sir. I know you don’t like to answer questions, but I need information if you’re ever going to save me.

      Your helpful and informative reply below leads me to believe that you know full well Trump has ulterior motives which run contrary to the best interests of the country.

      If that’s the case, why did you vote for him?

      • @Crazy H

        I am awesome. You got that right.

        And I made some awesome comments on Ted’s piece. Did you read them?

        They were about Austin Beutner and the role of a school superintendent.

        Ted’s piece was about Austin Beutner, not Donald Trump.

        The comment section is for that topic.

      • Try to keep up.

        The piece is about a rich guy pursing a low-paying job in politics.

        I made a generalization about rich guys pursuing low-paying jobs in politics.

        You replied in a derisive manner, so I asked you about a different rich guy guy pursuing a career in politics.

        You evaded answering.

        Twice.

      • @Crazy H

        You are not conducting an enhanced interrogation.

        The piece is about Ted’s nemesis, Beutner.

        Comment on the piece, if you can, and please don’t drag Jesus into it.

      • I’m sorry Mr. Awesome Teacher, sir – but it is *you* who chose to reply to my comment.

        This piece isn’t strictly about how “Local public education is not a success story” either; yet you found it relevant enough to comment upon. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, but you seem only to complain about topicality when you’re running away.

        Is that your winning football strategy, coach? Stand up on your hind legs, beat your chest, hurl insults and then run away at the slightest sign of opposition? (See, I didn’t bring Jebus into it.)

      • Okay, pal, I was responding to Falco.

        If you want to talk about Beutner, the role of a superintendent, local public education, I am here.

        I don’t want to talk about talking about something.

        Talk to EWG about Trump

  4. Anyway, as I was saying before Crazy H had to jump in, one should try to find out the perks that Beutner had negotiated into his contract, in addition to his $350,000 salary.

    For example, does he get a car? An annuity? Hair cuts paid for? Dry cleaning done? A clothing allowance?

    You would be surprised to see what superintendents get negotiated into their contracts that is hidden in other parts of the budget.

  5. One does have to wonder why millionaires/billionaires seek political office when said office pays far less than their day jobs. We can safely assume they aren’t in it to make life better for the little people.

    Graft, corruption, profiteering and emoluments are all illegal – so those can’t possibly be their motivators…

    MAGA!

      • For tomorrow’s lesson, please write a short essay detailing Donald Trump’s reasons for seeking the presidency.

        For extra credit, explain how those motivations are good for the country.

        500 words or less.

      • CrazyH
        Rumor has it Trump was simply running because he could. No one understood the actual depth of angry amongst the genpop.
        The rumor maintains he never actually intended to win and there were tears flowing openly when he did.
        His family didn’t want to be in the spotlight.
        In the end, Trump won because the rabid genpop was so pissed they assumed someone would actually listen to their desires and needs and change the USA, if not the world, for them.
        Simplified Trump won because of a massive amount of pissed off citizens.

      • @Wiz – that was good. Please don’t let Awesome Teacher copy your homework. He needs to learn to think on his own.

      • CrazyH
        You mentioned a teacher had a 200 year old sword.
        What style is this, or is it simply ornamental?
        Most people don’t know that duels were fought with bokken because the Samurai didn’t want to destroy his precious sword.
        Not all duels, mind you.
        If you watch Zatoichi films people drop from a sliced belly. I recently learned that those cuts send someone into immediate shock and they pass out to bleed out. Or with intestines hanging out and bleeding out.
        Bruce Lee in his first film was filming and telling the stuntmen to drop after he kicked them. The director came pissed and asked him why, Lee replied ” I only need one kick”.
        If you watch the famous Bob Wall kick from Enter the Dragon, Lee didn’t side snap he hit Wall then thrust with his leg.
        Angry Bruce must have been a fun guy.

      • It’s a hand made katana – fully functional and not a toy. I don’t know its history, but there are no nicks along the edge.

  6. Beutler will have tremendous power and will be able to do a lot of damage in s short amount of time.

    He will be able to hire assistant superintendents and other administrators, making the city more top- heavy than it probably already is. He will be able to lay off teachers and aides.

    He will be able to award contracts: not just for iPads, but for consultants, testing packages, attendance packages, and whatever falls under miscellaneous in the budget.

    Parents and taxpayers need to attend every school board meeting to see where the money is going.

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