Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Raymond took on teachers union

Before starting as the new superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District, Jonathan Raymond was told how he could escape unscathed from the no-win job he was taking on.

“Rudy Crew (a former Sacramento superintendent who later ran New York’s public schools) told me: ‘Stay three years, keep your head down, and whatever you do, don’t close any schools,’” Raymond said with a wistful smile the other day.

Of course, Raymond did close schools. He not only didn’t keep his head down, he took on the local teachers union repeatedly. He actually cared about the poorest kids in a poor district and showed it by making those schools a priority backed by his office.

In a state where the teachers unions control politicians, Raymond was ripe for being fired with an agenda that actually put kids first.

So Raymond is leaving after four years of success against long odds, but with few accolades and allies.

He was the ultimate solitary figure, doing good work that was praised by outsiders and ripped by insiders. His experience is a window into what truly ails public education in California.

Hack politicians seeking higher office from the school board dais jerked Raymond around constantly, even as the district achievement gap between the highest performing non-minority students and lowest minority students was reduced under Raymond’s watch.

The teachers union fought him and sued him at every step, even as school suspensions dropped across the board – most tellingly at the middle-school level, from 3,437 in 2010 to 1,236 in 2013.

Under Raymond, the dropout rate in the district fell from 23.2 percent in 2010 to 11.5 percent in 2012. The Latino dropout rate went from 27.8 in 2010 to 13.9. And for African Americans, it dropped from 37.1 to 15.5 percent.

Given these numbers and other achievements, and the virtual silence Raymond’s coming departure has inspired, the question remains: Are public schools a priority in Sacramento?

If we’re being honest as a community – and we rarely are on this topic – the answer has to be no. And Raymond’s lonely experience is illustrative of why.

The local teachers union cares most of all about preserving teacher seniority.

Many parents talk a great game, but Raymond’s idea of lifting the lowest ships gained him scant love from many whose true idea of public school greatness was preserving the schools and programs that their kids were in. As he recalled, “It was like the parent from (the high-achieving Genevieve Didion Elementary in Greenhaven) told me at a meeting. She said: ‘Superintendent, you’re not just the superintendent for poor kids. You’re the superintendent for all kids.’”

Raymond will likely be appreciated much more in retrospect – after he leaves for his native Boston in December.

His “priority” schools have been a resounding success after he arranged for the poorest-performing schools in the district to receive stable funding and staffing.

He set up a pipeline to cultivate principals and district leaders of the future. He prevailed in a lawsuit that allowed him to essentially get around teacher seniority in some cases. He got the community to pass school bonds to upgrade aging schools. He brought in youth counselors to foster a sense of community in schools where kids didn’t always enjoy the benefits of a stable home life.

He was a tireless advocate for Common Core standards that push students – and teachers – to drill down deeper on core subjects. He also set up restorative justice programs in schools through which students worked out conflicts in a safe environment, often in contrast to the environments in which they lived.

Raymond also bit the bullet and closed schools with declining enrollments and was pilloried the entire way by vested interests.

What was the worst thing that anyone said to him?

“I know where you live,” Raymond replied.

From the beginning, Raymond was in a tough spot.

He remembers, in his first week on the job, eagerly accepting an invitation from Mayor Kevin Johnson to attend a news conference.

“But some members of my board were upset. They said: ‘Remember who you work for.’”

It was then Raymond realized what a polarizing figure Johnson was to the teachers union for turning Sacramento High School into a charter school.

Raymond was wary of getting too close to Johnson for fear of having his initiatives scuttled by union-backed board members.

Just months after Raymond arrived in 2009, Johnson pitched the idea of bringing Teach for America to city schools. The nonprofit organization trains teachers and sends them to underserved schools and Raymond thought it was a great idea to bring a small number to city schools.

But when Raymond couldn’t be sure he’d get votes on his board to approve a pilot program, he had to tell Johnson he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t risk a big defeat so early in his tenure. The union objected, as other teacher unions have, because they label Teach for America as “union busters” who supplant veteran teachers with younger ones.

Johnson was not happy and a potentially valuable ally has been kept at arm’s length – depriving city schools of the biggest funding rainmaker in Sacramento as a full partner.

Meanwhile, a worthwhile program eventually set up shop at Natomas public schools instead.

And there were even bigger obstacles.

“There are some teachers in our district who should be getting paid six figures and there are some who should have been gone yesterday,” Raymond said. “And as superintendent, there is very little I could do to influence either extreme.”

While Raymond felt isolated as he dealt with these issues in Sacramento, John Deasy, leader of the Los Angeles Unified School District, is poised to leave for many of the same reasons.

It is what it is, and Raymond is clear-eyed about it. The only time he grows emotional is when considering the children of Sac City Unified.

“I love our kids in Sacramento,” he said.

“I’ll never forget this first-grader. He was so cute wearing a suit that still had the labels on it and making a presentation at a science fair,” Raymond said. “For many of these kids, it’s probably the first time in their lives where someone told them, you matter. You’re going to be something. Who knows what is going to happen with that kid (in the suit)? But maybe that presentation was the spark for him. That’s the stuff I feel really good about.”