Photo courtesy of Pablo Serrano

Austin Beutner has been hired as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

LOS ANGELES (CNS) — Investment banker and former Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner has been hired as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, despite concerns about his lack of experience in the education field.

Beutner, 58, was chosen on a 5-2 vote, with board members George McKenna and Scott Schmerelson objecting. Both board members supported interim Superintendent Vivian Ekchian.

“The premise that a non-educator is a better fit to lead a large educational organization because of limited managerial experience in outside business experiences is fundamentally flawed and politically motivated,” McKenna said.

The board approved a contract that provides Beutner with a base salary of $350,000 a year.

Before the board held its final closed-session meeting on the superintendent search on Tuesday, May 1, a series of parents also spoke to the panel in support of Ekchian, who has been serving as interim superintendent following the departure of Michelle King, who went on medical leave in September and announced in January she had cancer and would not be returning to work.

A representative for United Teachers Los Angeles, the union that represents district teachers, spoke out against the choice of Beutner and accusing the board of conducting “the least transparent, most fast-tracked superintendent selection in the history of the LAUSD.”

“It is an insult to educators and to public education that Austin Beutner has been chosen superintendent through such a conflicted process,” union officials said in a released statement.

“By locking out the people of Los Angeles, the school board majority has shown utter disdain for our communities and for the democratic decision-making process. As educators, we must continue our work with parents, youth, and communities to ensure that our students have the schools they deserve and that public education is protected.

The teachers union said it would “double” its commitment to faculty meeting boycotts and hold an All In for Respect Rally at Grand Park on May 24.

Other speakers blasted the choice of Beutner, who has no experience managing a school or a school district, as a move engineered by a majority block of board members who support an expansion of privately run charter schools within the district.

Beutner and Ekchian were the final two candidates standing in a competition that was initially narrowed to four people. The other two applicants — former Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso and Indianapolis schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee — both withdrew their names from consideration.

In 2010, Beutner became first deputy mayor of Los Angeles under Antonio Villaraigosa, overseeing business and job development. He was part of the Villaraigosa administration for about a year, also filling in as interim director of the Department of Water and Power.

He ran for mayor in 2012 when Villaraigosa termed out, but his campaign never caught on and he dropped out early.

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 Los Angeles Times but was fired after a year over disagreements about the newspaper’s direction.

He more recently served on the LA Unified Advisory Task Force created under King to help meet goals in the district’s strategic plan and “to foster a culture of change in which we identify opportunities and embrace solutions to close the achievement gap.”

“As publisher of the LA Times, Beutner brought in the Eli Broad and Frank Baxter foundations to fund much of the education reporting, a stunning conflict of interest – both foundations are major players in unregulated charter growth, privatization, and anti-union practices,” the teachers union stated.

“Moreover, Beutner has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to non-union corporate charter operators that do not accept all students, and he sits on the board of a corporate charter that is in court for illegally firing a beloved teacher for her union activism.”

LAUSD board president Monica Garcia urged “every stakeholder inside and outside of our district to join the new superintendent and this board in fulfilling our mission to serve every child in every classroom in every school well on their way to graduation.”

Beutner will take over a district facing financial struggles and labor issues. Thousands of unionized cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians and other support personnel have already authorized a strike, citing a stall in contract talks.

The union representing the workers, SEIU Local 99, issued a statement saying it shares Beutner’s goals of closing the achievement gap and “achieving greater equity in our schools.”

“We hope to work with him to reach these goals and improve public education in Los Angeles without privatization of our schools,” according to the union. “… Students cannot learn if they are hungry, sick or poor and we expect Mr. Beutner to partner with school workers, parents, students and our communities to address the many issues impacting our children’s education.”

On Wednesday, May 2, Beutner responded to questions about his experience in education following a tour of Belmont High School in Los Angeles.

“To state the obvious, I’m an unconventional choice. Unconventional by lots of measures, I think you’ve heard that already,” Beutner said. “But the district is at a crossroads. We face some tough issues. But I believe we can move forward together and address these issues to unlock the enormous potential the district holds.

“Hard choices are just that, hard,” he said. “But our school board is capable of making hard choices. I know, for example, it was not easy to choose me. And now we have more hard choices to look at, more decisions to make together. But if we make all those decisions with an understanding, with a commitment to provide the best possible education for the students in Belmont High and the students throughout L.A. Unified, we’re going to get better.”