LAUSD’s Austin Beutner ends his term today. How will he be remembered?

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser and Angie Perrin

LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner wraps up his three-year term today. His legacy and actions during the pandemic have been received wildly differently. Photo by Griffin5 (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Austin Beutner is stepping down after three years as superintendent of the second-largest school district in the U.S. In his farewell speech on Monday, he said the LA Unified School District is “well on the path to recovery” after a turbulent year. 

What does his three-year record look like? KCRW talks with LAUSD Board member Jackie Goldberg and West LA-based parent Danna Rosenthal, whose two children are enrolled in the district. 

Goldberg says that initially, she was skeptical of Beutner. “I went to the Board. And I testified — when they were getting ready to vote — that he was the wrong guy for the job. Because he hadn't had any classroom experience. He hadn't been a principal. Hadn't been anything.”

But after seeing him in action during the pandemic, she says, “My mind changed because he's the right guy for the pandemic. He immediately saw beyond just our students, but to their families. He immediately saw that we needed to be feeding not just the students, but their families and other people who were hungry because of the pandemic and couldn't get work and couldn't get food.”

She adds that LAUSD’s efforts to help students and staff during the pandemic were mimicked by other districts. 

Goldberg says that Beutner also helped decentralize the district to address different communities’ needs, such as when he provided specialized IT personnel for each of them. 

But other responsibilities and decisions lie with the LAUSD board, she notes. “There is still some central decision making. But more and more, it is being pushed outward because that is [Beutner’s] notion: Get the support closer to the schools.”

In response to criticism around bringing students back into classrooms (and keeping them on Zoom there), Goldberg says the district followed CDC recommendations. She points to the guideline that students should stay in one pod per day. 

“We did what was safe. We've had no outbreaks in our schools. Was it awful for everybody? You bet it was. ... But you know, what was the better solution? We have done nothing except follow the medical advice of John Hopkins, UCLA and Stanford, and the county health department.”

Rosenthal says LAUSD went over the top with caution. “I think they took the safety precautions to a whole different level, where all other schools in the nation were open and didn't have outbreaks. LAUSD was the last major school district to reopen. And they took safety precautions to a level that were ridiculous, and our kids were suffering.”

She adds, “The secondary schools were forced to be ‘Zoom in a room.’ … My kids were mentally and academically challenged for the last year and a half. … This was a disaster. And frankly, all of these people should be losing their jobs.”

Rosenthal points out that LAUSD leadership could have explored new ways of teaching students that weren't online, such as teaching outdoors. Instead, she says the district was negotiating over terms and wasting time. 

“A lot of these kids are never going to recover. My kids personally have regressed a full year. And think about all these lower-income kids. They'll never get back what they lost. I mean, it's really a criminal act what they've done. And they can say all they want that it was [about] safety and health, but I don't buy it.”

She thinks Beutner kowtowed to the teachers union, and says the pandemic is further proof that parents need a larger voice in the inner workings of the district. 

“This is not acceptable to be sitting here where the LAUSD school board and the teachers union are making these decisions, and parents don't have a say. … Parents have really woken up during the pandemic. And we know there's a lot at stake for kids' education and public education. This is not going away.”