Getting Stuff Done - A Different Approach to Solving Problems in Los Angeles
Austin Beutner joins Richard Green for a discussion on what it takes to accomplish real change in Los Angeles.
Beutner asserts that the twin forces of leadership and governance have the power to solve many of the ongoing and intensifying issues in the county like homelessness, education, and land use. As Superintendent of LAUSD during the pandemic, Beutner oversaw unprecedented responses like providing free food for the community, securing broadband internet access and devices for students in need, and providing reliable and cost-effective COVID testing for the nation’s second-largest school district. Other school districts in 40 states across the country adopted the models LAUSD pioneered to meet their own community needs.
With that crisis response as the groundwork, Green and Beutner cover such topics as the inherent limits to the Los Angeles mayoral office, what structures hold back the capacity for LA County to respond effectively, and Beutner’s latest project: a ballot initiative to bring the arts to all schools in California, Vote Arts and Minds.
Richard Green: My name is Richard Green. I'm Director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. And I'd like to welcome you to Lusk Perspectives. It's a webinar series we started at the beginning of the pandemic, so now about two years and two months ago is when we first began. We've done something like 60 of these over the course of the last two plus years. And it is my very great pleasure to welcome a special guest today, Austin Beutner, a man who really needs no introduction. He has had his hand in so many Los Angeles things, among other things after a very successful career in finance, both working at well known shops, and a shop that he created himself, has been Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles, has been the Superintendent of the school system, has been publisher of the Los Angeles Times. So somebody who has had his hand in a vast amount of what goes on in Los Angeles. And so the theme of his talk today, which is how to get things done in LA seems particularly apropos because it is something that people are putting a lot of effort into thinking about. I think it's fair to say because of some frustration on the ability to get things done in Los Angeles. And so few people would have more insight into what we need to move things forward than Austin Beutner. So Austin, thank you very much for being here and let me give it over to you.
Austin Beutner: Thank you, Richard. My pleasure to be with you, and look forward to having this conversation. You know, I thought we might spend a minute and quickly start with a conversation. But if we take a step back in Los Angeles and think about the problem, think about what it is we're trying to solve, or the issue we're trying to address, and how that connects with all different parts of government throughout the Los Angeles area, we'll see a big disconnect. We've got city, county, school district, state, all separate, all separate elected officials, all separate budgets, sometimes separate priorities. And let's just use one example of the response to the pandemic. And I'll drill a little deeper. We can talk more broadly about the pandemic for sure. But in schools, before schools actually closed, we started making plans to make sure that everybody in our school community had access to food. We knew that we were a lifeline for so many students with the school lunch program, we knew when school was closed, we'd have to do something different. We'd have to make sure no child went hungry. And so we launched a program the first or second day of school closures back in March of 2019 to provide meals, no questions asked to hungry children, and it became adults as well at schools. Now that was the right thing, that's why we did it. Along the way, one might have expected city, county, state to join in our efforts. You know, we expect the cavalry to arrive because schools have a fairly prescribed mission, which is read, and write, and arithmetic. And if we can build a foundation of literacy, math, critical thinking skills while students are at schools, so their future's gonna be much brighter. But we've seen when so many families in Los Angeles Unified are just struggling to get by, more than 80% of families served by schools in Los Angeles Unified live below the poverty line, what we saw with the food program was schools became the lifeline, and the meal program was run by schools. It ultimately became the largest food relief effort in our nation's history providing more than 140 million meal to children and adults, no questions asked. But along the way, we had philanthropy join us. We had businesses and organizations donate everything from See's Candies, and soccer balls, to diapers and baby wipes. But if you take a step back, I don't think most of us going into a crisis would say, "Okay, schools are gonna feed the community." Or, "Schools are gonna provide computers and internet access "to everybody who needs it in the community". Or, "Schools are gonna set up and run "the nation's most cost effective COVID testing program." But all those things happened. And so I think Richard, as we begin this conversation, I hope all who were watching were listening today keep that in mind, which is maybe we need to just flip it and think about what is the problem we're trying to solve? How can we make sure that every bit of government who have a state or responsibility to make sure that problems solved, join, join in the effort and look at the school meal program, or the meal program for the community that operated for almost two years during COVID. And not once along the way did the school system receive support from the city, or county, or a nickel of funding from the city or county. And that's just not how I think it's meant to work. So that I think is a jump off quite for Richard, for you and I to have a conversation. But I wanted to put that in listeners' minds because we could talk about individuals experiencing homelessness, we could talk about issues in transportation, we could talk about the crisis in affordable housing, and so many other issues that we struggle with as a community. We've seen it can happen, a problem can get solved. We provided food, we provided COVID testing, we provided computers and internet access. But the we was schools, and so I think as we step in this next chapter in greater Los Angeles, there has to be a lot more coherent thinking, and a lot more collaboration, and a focus on leadership to say, "Who's responsible? "What group of folks can we hold accountable "for this particular problem, "and is it being solved to our satisfaction?"
Richard Green: So what you're raising is an issue of, in part at least of governance, and who has responsibility for what? And governance in Los Angeles County is very fragmented both in the sense that there are a whole lot of municipalities, 88 plus the, always makes me think of the piano. That's why it's easy to remember, plus unincorporated LA County. And then, and then in terms of responsibilities. So some responsibilities are shared by different units of government, others are siloed, et cetera. So as you think about governance, what practical method of restructuring do you think might be available that could at least move us to the right direction in terms of getting people to cooperate more with you?
Austin Beutner: Sure, sure. I'll comment on the governance. Before I do, I think it's governance and leadership. I think it's a both and. Going back to the food relief effort, nobody asked us to do it. It wasn't in the charter of schools. Along the way, lots of different forms of government actually said we couldn't. We had squabbles with the federal government about the type of meal we were providing. I think they would've liked us to provide those things that look like school meals. Sometimes it looked like MREs, which you know, you could put in a warehouse and they're shelf stable for about 16 years. Well, people don't want to eat those, so we got real food. Looked like what they would want to eat. You know, we heard from the state and the county, well, FEMA is gonna do this, that, and the other thing. Well, they never did, so we did. So I think it's important, it's governance and leadership together. But I think this diffuse form that we have, if you organize it around the problem, we could talk about homelessness, something that gets a lot of conversation. It's a community-wide issue. Again, the meal program, Los Angeles Unified schools, sometimes people don't know the breadth. It's the city of Los Angeles plus another 25 cities and unincorporated areas. It's much, much bigger than the city, but doesn't serve all of the county. When you think of the challenge of individuals experiencing homelessness, their needs range from assistance with substance abuse, mental health support, job training and support, family support, education for their children to shelter, to housing, and the continuum of services. None of those reside in any particular form of government, but why wouldn't we have an authority much like the Transit Authority? They're one of the things that actually works in Los Angeles, and we can correl as to whether there's not enough rail, or more rail, or not enough buses, or the routes aren't the way we'd like them to be. But in general, the Transportation Authority, the MTA, is a collaboration of the cities and the unincorporated areas in the county. And it works because if you're on a bus crossing the border from Santa Monica to Los Angeles, through Beverly Hills, to West Hollywood on the way Downtown somehow, you don't really care that you've changed jurisdictions. You just wanna make sure the bus is clean and safe and gets you where you wanted to go. The same ought to be true for homelessness. And so I think that's a sharp example right now in our community where, where is the leadership? Just exactly whom would a voter or a community member express their frustration to or hold accountable? But the finger pointing, and the not my job, and the passing of the blame, or the narrow casting, you know, let's focus on what it takes to create a permit for a new structure in a certain community. That's only a small portion of the problem. I think we need to go from the solution and map our way back as opposed to, from a Byzantine form of government and try to somehow connect to the problem, 'cause it's not working.
Richard Green: Well I mean, you mentioned the MTA as sort of an example of how to do things right, but even they have limits. So you drive down Wilshire Boulevard, and there's a bus lane until you hit Beverly Hills, and then it disappears in Beverly Hills, and then there's a bus lane again when you leave Beverly Hills. There has been for years an attempt to do BRT in the sort of west end of the San Gabriel Valley to the east end of the San Fernando Valley along Colorado Boulevard, and nobody can agree to what that looks like. So even when you have this authority that seems to supersede local governments, the local governments can prevent it from doing what seem like very sensible things.
Austin Beutner: Well, you know, it's a continuum. You know, one of the things that I often try to remind people is, effective government is somewhat an oxymoron sometimes. So if we say what MTA is doing is pretty good, not as good as it could be, not as good as we'd like. Sure, the bus lane ought to roll all the way through Beverly Hills, all the way through Downtown, and Bus Rapid Transit's a brilliant idea, not well executed in the Los Angeles Basin. Those are truisms, okay? Now how close to the ideal can we get, how do we advocate for that, as opposed to wind up in sibling or civic rivalries as to whose rules supersede the others, we're just not approaching the solution. We're getting caught up in the mechanics of bureaucracy, and I think that stands in the way of progress a lot.
Richard Green: So along these lines, so there's a question in the chat about what you think about the mayoral candidates and I'm not gonna put you on the spot on that one, but let me ask you a broader question, which is, given the powers that the mayor of Los Angeles has, how much can he or she actually do to move things forward?
Austin Beutner: Yeah, I think, you know, that's a myth that's grown over time. You know, I worked as Deputy Mayor, we made some changes. I think progress was made at least for a period of time. Go back to the school meal program. Nothing in the charter of Los Angeles Unified said the school district should providing meals to hungry children and adults throughout the Los Angeles area, but we did. There is no bigger bully pulpit than the mayor of Los Angeles in the entire area. So part of the responsibility of a leader, set a clear set of objectives, bring others along, and don't let the bureaucracy, don't let the silos get in the way. So I think sometimes we're conflating a relatively weak mayoral governance system with relatively weak mayors. So leadership makes a difference. I think it's an enormous opportunity for the right leader, she or he to lead, to set a goal and show us it can be achieved. I think the other thing that we suffer from, frankly, is a lack of engagement in the body politics. So we've been fed for a long, long time, promises. Promises and plans, which have, for in general, proved relatively empty. So there's no shortage of ideas. I don't think the governance system in City Hall has been the impediment, I think it's been a lack of leadership and lack of commitment to trying to get something solved. And I wrote a piece in the Daily News, which some folks saw, some didn't I guess, about what I think the next mayor needs to take on. And one of the things I said is they need to be willing to make someone unhappy to solve a problem for all of us. And if the role of mayor is perceived as a chief cheerleader for the city, a spokesperson on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce for community visitors, that's wonderful, but that's actually not what we need. We need someone who's gonna roll up their sleeves, him or her, and get the work done. And I think the celebration will happen, I think the recognition will happen, but we fall for the promise, we fall for the slogan. I mean, each of the mayoral candidates, let's go back to homelessness. They've put out statements, "I'm gonna build this many units, "this many units, this many units", I can't keep track. I think they're all meaningless promises. Let's see what any of them in their lived experience has shown they can do. Let's see if they're willing to go against the grain and identify what stands in the way of achieving that goal, and maybe making somebody unhappy. The easy things' done already. And if it's a 51-49, that means you need to do it, 'cause it's the right thing. Fine, just you're gonna get up the next day and recognize that 49% of people are be unhappy with you. But in long term, if it's the right thing, I think that mayor can build the support they need and they can work within the governance structure that exists to make progress.
Richard Green: You know, you're reminding me of a very powerful column Steve Lopez wrote a couple of years ago about homelessness, and it was exactly what you were saying. He said that a leadership in City Hall didn't wanna make anyone unhappy and wasn't willing to yell at anybody. He, that good intentions were rewarded with kindness as opposed to results. And yeah, I think that's a really powerful point.
Austin Beutner: It's powerful. You know, almost 2000 people died in the streets in Los Angeles last year while experiencing homelessness. But that is awful. We've been visited by the head of, I forget his official title, the gentleman from the UN who visited some of the most awful conditions in which people live around the world, and effectively declared a crisis in Los Angeles, yet that didn't seem to cause the body politic to respond and say, "Okay, we're gonna do something. "It may not be perfect, but we are gonna do something." And to Steve's point, I very much agree. Now the job of the mayor is to see, help us all to see a vision and help us all understand what our role can be to make progress. We're not looking for another cheerleader. I don't think that's gonna get the job done.
Richard Green: You know, it was interesting, I didn't know if you saw Heidi Marston's statement upon her resignation, but she had an extraordinary, two extraordinary numbers is that they housed 205 people a day, but they added 225 a day to the homeless count. So it feels like a Sisyphean kind of issue.
Austin Beutner: Well, it only is in that we're not widening the aperture enough to look at the problem as a whole. So let's look at, again, something we did in schools, when I took on the responsibility of Superintendent, the school district had been in a federal consent decree for 25 years as regards its special education program. So helping to provide a good education for students with learning differences and disabilities. And there was a series of standards that had to be met. And one of them was making sure a plan was in place for each of almost 75,000 kids called an IEP, basically an individualized plan for each child and what they need to make progress. The goal was 90%. Now the fish swim in and out of schools in high needs areas, you know, one of the things that doesn't get talked about often enough is high transiency in high needs communities. So a child might start in one elementary school, and be in three or four by the time they finish fifth grade. There're elementary schools in Los Angeles area where only 20% of the kids who enter a kindergarten class are the same kids who graduate in fifth grade. So transiency's an issue, the fish are swimming, and 90% was seeming effectively like 120%, this extraordinary target that had to be reached. Well we got everyone together and say, "Okay, we're gonna do that. "We will add people, we will walk the streets. "We will find each and every one", and we did it. And we exited the federal consent decree and took the oversight of programs for children who need help away from lawyers and handed them back to teachers, which I think is a great thing to do. The same is true for the effort in Los Angeles area. Think of the number, it's coincidentally in order magnitude, the same numbers. Well how many counselors do we have on the street trying to get to know those experiencing homelessness? What's the form and nature of them? Are they people who can relate to someone on the street, maybe experience homelessness at one point in their life themselves? Or they repurposed a public safety officers whose time is better spent doing something else, or aren't quite trained to be that point out there. But I think you'd find a shockingly small number of people who start where the problem resides, or the issues reside, which is the individual. It's not the unit of housing at the end, it's being on the street, making sure that someone who wants help can have access, or someone who won't seek help is taken in a different path and a different way, and but if we don't have enough people on the street working with those who are experiencing homelessness, trying to identify who they are, I mean, it's staggering to me. So Los Angeles area tries to count every year, the number of people experiencing homelessness. It's actually a federal requirement every other year, HUD requires what's called a count, a census in effect. That's not an identification, it's just a count. So someone working as part of the count sees a trailer, and the estimate for a trailer is 1.6 people per trailer, and just puts down on their note card 1.6 and so on and so forth. There's actually no effort to try to say, what's the name? Is that Richard? Oh, Richard's here now, he's on the beach in Venice, but before, he actually was over in Echo Park and so on, so forth. It won't be perfect, but if it can be done for 75,000 children in schools and their families, I think we can get a lot closer than we are today, and that's where you'd start, with an investment in people who can build relationships in any way shape or form that's appropriate, to start to make sure the care that's needed is there. You know, I saw commentary from some elected officials talking about how much of the transit-related crime, or issues are ultimately substance abuse related. It may be, but it manifests itself as real crimes, and the individuals who's the victim, and the individual needs help for their substance issues is not getting help in the criminal justice system. So we're not solving that problem unless we've got more people on the street who have the right set of experiences to try to identify those who need help, and see if we can get them help.
Richard Green: You know, for years it's been a popular political trope that we need to downsize government and have fewer people in government. And it sounds like you're saying the opposite is true. And let me just think about, give another context is, one of the things real estate developers complain about is how long it takes to get permitting here in Southern California. And one of the things that's striking to me is if you look at Singapore where they take about nine days to complete a permit, they're planning staff is relative to population, about twice the size of the planning staff in Los Angeles. So that's just a through, and nobody thinks of Singapore's government as being inefficient. It, so do we just--
Austin Beutner: Yeah, but that's, you make an interesting point 'cause there, again, there are two issues which are coming together. When is the accountability, responsibility of that agency to be efficient and effective in its actions, right? So there ought to be a statutory guideline, you know, within X days you do Y, okay? Now the other piece, when it comes to that that isn't talked about is the city of Los Angeles now, and I can speak with some knowledge having worked there, is hasn't been in compliance with state law forever in terms of community plans. And it has an exemption from state law. Each community every five years is supposed to update its plans to determine by right, what you can do if you buy a piece of property, okay? So almost nothing is by writing. Everything has to go through the system to be re-entitled or changed, which means every single thing is like starting anew. It's again, it's a Byzantine system. And it leads to maybe not a little corruption, but certainly I think morally corrupt actions. Look at a project called Sea Breeze in the Harbor Gateway area, taking a piece of property zoned for a warehouse in effect and rezoned for multifamily housing, okay? They could argue that's good or bad. The Planning Commission in the area who looked at it said no. The Central Planning Commission said no, and a mayor and a council person, a series of electeds overruled it. Now coincidentally, all of those individuals, or their campaign committees received about half a million dollars in campaign contributions. Now this piece of property was worth about $15 million as warehouse, and the land was worth about $40 million if you wanted to build multifamily housing. So it went from 25, or I'm sorry, 15 million to 40 million, it's a $25 million increase overnight once the re-entitlement happened. Now, the public good wasn't served in many respects, right? You had the community saying it wasn't a fit. Now again, I'm not conversant in that, I'm affluent in the issue itself and that community. But if it was, why is the developer making $25 million? Why isn't the city somehow sharing in that rezoning and uptitle? And if you look at what Mayor Bloomberg was able to do in New York during his tenure, more than half that city was rezoned, meaning brought to the modern age. So part of the reason going back to Singapore, is a series of bureaucracies which may not have clear guidelines they have to operate under in terms of timeframes and responsiveness. But part of it also is the fact that we don't have community plans which are in compliance with state law. There, I think it's 30 or 34, something like that. The city of Los Angeles is broken into these various communities, and almost none of them have been updated in many, many years. So the issue in the Harbor area is, should that be warehouse or should it be residential? That community ought to be able to weigh in and help decide that, and then once that's clear, I think entitling it or allowing it to be built becomes a much simpler exercise and would happen much more quickly.
Richard Green: You know, it is, there is an example of, I think, progress in this regard, which is the Transit Oriented Communities Program, which has the benefit of being, it basically does give zoning by right to higher density than current zoning, but in such a way that developers don't do windfalls. And so the trade off of you have to put aside a certain number of units in exchange for getting more density is, we've done computations of this at the Lusk Center. You're basically changing, in a typical example, the return on cost from 6% to 6.5%. So yeah, you're giving an incentive, which is you need some incentive, but you're not giving a windfall. And at the same time, because it's transparent, it's relatively easy to execute, and we're seeing a fair amount of this stuff getting built right now.
Austin Beutner: Yeah, yeah. Again, a good idea. Not enacted, I think in a systemic way, meaning it doesn't tie to an entire community. So it's still, again, just a piece, a slice, you know, whether we had community plans. We should, because I think it's vital that the community have a role in deciding whatever the Harbor area should look like, that there's no voice more important than the people who live there. And once that's been decided, I think we could do things a lot more smartly and a lot more to the benefit of the local neighborhood and the community as a whole.
Richard Green: So I know there's a referendum you wanna talk about, but I'm gonna put that off for a few minutes 'cause I wanna start getting into questions from the audience. And again, the first one was, do you have feelings about the major candidates running for mayor of Los Angeles? I am not gonna ask you that. Now I'm sorry, Paul, but I don't wanna put Austin on the spot on that particular question, but I'll put him on the spot on the next one, which is from Jeffrey Little. I hope I pronounce that properly. So he says, "Government has failed to solve the illicit drug problem, "and with few exceptions, "has no interest in this criminal activity. "Please help me understand why illicit drug use "is tolerated by government."
Austin Beutner: Well, the first, I'll be the first to admit that's not necessarily an area that I've spent sufficient time, so I don't necessarily consider myself an expert. I would note, just as an observer, that we are way under-resourced in services for those who have substance abuse issues. Decriminalizing issues in individuals' a personal actions if that person is the only one harmed. It seems help for that individual is the best path. There's a continuum where that harm starts to incur on the lives of others and then becomes a criminal activity. But if you look at the lack of resource to address the issue of abuse in the first place, that's a challenge for us. You look at frankly, again, going back to silos, whether or not cannabis should be legalized or not legalized, whether it's treated as a pharmacy item or not a pharmacy item, we've had a pharmacy system for medicinal use of all kinds of prescription drugs for long as I've been alive, so 62 years, probably a lot longer than that. Why medicinal cannabis somehow wound up with its own lane, I never quite understood that. It should have been regulated just like any other pharmacological project. So we tend again to look at an issue in isolation without looking at the impact on a system. But I defer to people who are more expert than I am in the topic of illicit substances, and you know, the impact, not only individual, but society as a whole. It's complicated.
Richard Green: So, this is more of a softball from Deborah Salon. Impressive achievement to feed the community and provide connectivity. What do you think were the keys to your success in making these things happen?
Austin Beutner: Yeah well, thank you for that one. I appreciate that. It started with a clear idea of what our goal was. It started with a team empowered to do what they thought they needed to do to achieve that goal. Let's look at computers and connectivity for a moment. You know, we woke up like many and said, "Gosh, COVID is going to make an impact on our lives, "and we have 600,000 students and families "without a computer at home, "without an internet connection." Again, people think of the digital divide as that space between South and North Dakota where you just run out of cell signal. Well actually, South Los Angeles, East Los Angeles families struggling to get by can't afford broadband. So the first thing we actually did was reach an agreement with Apple to buy literally every computer they had in the country. We had people going to the back of Apple stores in New York, Chicago, and other places that are being closed and bringing those computers and those tablets to Los Angeles to be provided to our elementary school students. We reached an agreement with Verizon to, for them to sell us broadband service at a very, very reduced price that we could then provide to families for free. We did it, I think smartly, we did it in a way that protected the school system. So if anybody else got a better deal, we got that. Then at the same time, if any other school system adopted it around the country, we benefit, or our students would benefit for having lead. So in the course of 72 hours, we talked to all the telecom providers and we got the best terms from Verizon very transparently. We reached an agreement. It was a couple of months later when the state called us and said, "Gosh, it seems like you have the best agreement. "Can we copy it?" We said, "Sure, here are the terms." And Verizon told us later in 40 other states that was used as a model. So what happened there? Clear vision, a team empowered to act, and a relentless pursuit of the solution. Because I could tell you, over those 72 hours, there are about 72 different problems that surfaced. Could we, where was the money come from? Was it lawful to do this? Could we do that? How would we make sure it stood the test of time and all those things? But we brought people together with the expertise to do it, and we took action knowing that it wasn't gonna be perfect, but knowing perfect was the enemy of the good in that particular instance. Our COVID testing, we knew the day we closed schools, we wanted to bring kids back. That was the goal. We wanted to bring them back safely, bring teachers, and staff, and school bus drivers, and the entire school community back safely. And it was clear from what the Head of the World Health Organization told us, in order to do so we'd have to provide COVID testing. So within a month of school closures, when the county and city had little to offer to us, we set out on our own. And we brought in Stanford, John Hopkins, UCLA, Anthem Blue Cross, Health Net, Cedars-Sinai, and Microsoft, all free, are donating our expertise to say, "Okay, how do we find a best in class solution "which could test a whole lot of people, overnight results, "at a high quality, with low cost?" And we wound up being the first customer to a company called SummerBio, a startup in Silicon Valley, which guaranteed overnight PCR tests, so the gold standard, 10 bucks a test, overnight results, at the quality standard we agreed on. If that all that didn't happen, the school district wouldn't pay a nickel. It turns out the standard stood the test of time. That's still the cheapest and most cost effective COVID testing program in the nation. And it allowed us to bring kids safely back to school. So if you take in, take a step back. A clear goal, a team empowered, understand the limitations of the organization you're part of, so bring an outside expertise when needed, be transparent in all of your actions. All the contracts that we entered into, whether with Verizon, or SummerBio were published as soon as they were signed. And do it again. Walk up and do it again. So I think the lessons, focus on the goal, a strong team, don't let the bureaucracy be the impediment, and don't try to rationalize why you were not successful. Try to figure out what you gotta change to be successful.
Richard Green: You know, there are other aspects of LA where we're very successful, and the world doesn't even know about it. I mean, something I brag about is our health outcomes in California generally and Southern California in particular are really good. If you look at infant mortality, maternal mortality and life expectancy, we're like Scandinavia. We are world-leading in that regard. And part of it was, there was a great article in the Atlantic a few years ago about how we got our maternity mortality rates down to world class levels where they weren't as recently as 15, 20 years ago. So I mean, maybe it doesn't matter, but is there a way we can get some of the more positive aspects of Southern California out to the rest of the world, or should we not even care that much?
Austin Beutner: I think going back to the prior question, really, is the case study of how it happened. How was that possible? What did leadership, what rules were changed? Why was that effort a success, and to see what lessons are learned for other things? So you know, yeah, I'm a big booster of Los Angeles as anybody who lives here, but I'm less interested in sharing that success with the rest of the world than I am in the folks who are trying to take on the challenge of people experiencing homelessness, or dealing with discourage of whoever might be and learning from our own experiences. You know, there's a lot we can all learn from others, whether it's in our own community, or it's other communities around the nation or around the world. You know, we built a data system to be the companion piece to the COVID testing in schools. It's a simple app on your phone called the Daily Pass, and it keeps track of everyone who's been tested. We can share in real-time with health authorities and an individual school or school community the result, okay? We didn't have the expertise. We talked to Microsoft who was working on a project in Singapore that worked in a project in Germany, and they brought those learnings to us. So sometimes we look at the island of Los Angeles and think if it wasn't embedded here, it can't possibly be good enough. But sometimes, as you said, we've actually done something pretty well, and let's learn from it.
Richard Green: So I'm gonna, the next two questions I'm gonna put together, and the first, the second I will say first, which is, will you ever throw your hat in the ring for the mayoral race? And as you may not know this, but I actually gave you money when you ran in 2013, and Austin is the only candidate who has ever returned my money after I've given him money. And, but, and if you were new mayor, what five city departments, this is from Michael Kelly, would you invest in the most knowing that they would provide the best return on investment?
Austin Beutner: Sure. Well good morning, Michael, always good to be with you. You know, as far as my hat in the ring, I think we'll talk in a moment about my hat in the ring with a different initiative. I'm 62. I have four children, a lovely wife. And as I look ahead to the next decade of my life, I don't know that I uniquely understand, but having served as Superintendent during a crisis, a pandemic, having served as first Deputy Mayor, I hope all those who are running understand it's a full and a halftime job. It doesn't end at five o'clock, it doesn't when you clip a ribbon. You're not really making a difference giving speeches and press conferences. You're making a difference when you do the work. And I am making a life choice, which is I want to continue to give back and find ways to make a difference, but I also want to be able to have some work-life balance for the next 10 years of my life. So I don't think you'll see me enter that arena, it's a very personal choice for me. As far as the city departments, I mean, again, I would reorganize much of City Hall, there're 83 departments. They're organized by history and lore much more than by the problem they're trying to solve. I used to kid about it when I was down visiting folks at the port, and as Deputy Mayor, oversaw housing, and homelessness, and international activities, and the port, the airport duty and so on, I was there with the director of the port, Geraldine Nance, who's a terrific person.
Richard Green: Geraldine, I see, is in our audience today.
Austin Beutner: Ah, everyone should go out and buy her book. She's a terrific author, tells great stories by the way. But she was lamenting the fact that keeping this little grass island outside her office window well-maintained was a challenge, because you had the curb people were one part of the city. You had the light pole was it a different part of the city. The people who maintained the trees were different than those who maintained the little piece of sop. So that's at least four. And I'm sure there were others. And you go, it would make a lot more sense to have some set of folks hardworking always, maintain that, not have four different departments. You know, today it's still true If you want to change, or you have a problem with an electric light, a street light, you got the street folks, and you got different things. You'll see a street sometimes repaved, and then it's torn up within weeks or months by some other government agency that's putting in new lines underneath, or changing the sewer or something else. So Michael, to your question, I would like to see 83 be a lot less, and organize them around the service that's trying, we're trying to deliver the community as opposed to reinvesting in a structure that I think is somewhat broken. And again, it's not the people. I wanna be clear, everybody I work with in the City Hall, people get up in the morning, they're trying to do the best they can do their job. They're not the ones who said we should have 83 city departments. But when that decision was made, or as it gets added to, it seems like every initiative you read about in the newspaper, a mayor, or city council wanna add another department. Well, when we provided meals to people, we didn't add a community meal program in schools, we just did the work. When we did the agreement and made sure that everyone had a computer and internet access, we didn't add a compute, a family internet access department. We didn't add a COVID testing department. Solve the problem with the resources you have, and maybe simplify your internal organization structure to make a little more responsive to the customer.
Richard Green: So let's turn to, and by the way, I wanna acknowledge the Chair of the Lusk Center, Bill Witte, is also on this call. And he asked a question that even though you didn't know the question, you basically largely answered it. So Bill, thank you for the question. Let me, before I go back to audience questions, let's talk about your pet project is, too condescending. The thing that's most important to you in the public sphere at the moment.
Austin Beutner: Yeah, so we announced today we've collected a million signatures, more than a million actually from registered voters around the state of California to put on the November 8th, 2022 ballot, a chance for Californians to invest in the future of public school children. This will provide for almost a doubling of arts and music education in public schools without any increase in taxes. And I'll start first with the problem we're trying to solve. Now, I'm a big believer that arts and music is a central part of education. Engagement leads to attendance. Participating in the arts and creative thinking reinforces literacy, math, and critical thinking skills. And in this day and age, and at this moment in time, the social emotional support the arts provide is profound. So with me, pushing an open door when it comes to the need, I hope with many in the audience as well. But unfortunately in California, barely one in five public schools have full-time arts or music program. I think that's just awful. Root cause is funding inadequacy. To give you some context, in 2019, New York provided its schools with about $30,000 a year in funding for everything that happens in a school. In Los Angeles, it's about 17. Clearly inadequate to do the job that's needed. So what we can do is take just a small portion of the record revenue, the additional revenue, the record surplus dedicated to schools, only to be used for this purpose. We've written a law. I mean like many in the audience, I've voted for and against powder initiatives before, but to be honest with you, I've never read the full language of any of them. I've read the title and summary, which is just a very small piece. I actually read this one, 'cause I wrote it together with some teachers, some smart lawyers, and some smart administrators to make sure the money goes to schools, to make sure its schools decide how to use it, to make sure it goes to expand programs, and to make there's real accountability built in. Each school will have to publish every year what they use the money for, how it aligns with state standards, and how it helped children. And in effect, this will become the most transparent part of school funding. So that $17,000. I spoke of, you know, good luck trying to figure out where it goes today, but this one piece we'll all know. Now the coalition we built, I think hasn't been seen in this state in a long, long time. We've got entertainment, technology and media folks with us. We have celebrities with us, the Katy Perry's, and the Quincy Jones's, and the Jason Momoa's and so on to help use their voice and their agency to make sure people are aware of it. We have labor and community organizations. We've got business leaders, we've got arts organizations, and educators up and down the states. We built this amazing coalition. It polls pretty darn well, 81% support. And I can't get 81% support for chocolate ice cream in my household. So I think we could start with a good base of support amongst voters. The mere fact that we were able to collect more than a million signatures in less in 90 days, I think gives you some sense of a grassroot support for an initiative like this. And if anyone wants to learn more, go to voteartsandminds.org, and please join us. And we have a chance without raising taxes, to invest in a brighter future for every child in public schools throughout the state of California, and that's what I hope we can do.
Richard Green: So I'm gonna, that's inspiring, so I'm gonna follow up with kind of a downer question from Paul Roback who says, "Hi Austin, many parents and others believe "that as a provider of high quality public education, "LAUSD is broken, "with longstanding seemingly insurmountable systemic issues. "Now it has a new Superintendent, "who comes of course from Miami-Dade County. "Do you believe Alberto Carvalho "will be able to truly shake things up at LAUSD "for the benefit of students, "and what would you advise him to watch out for "as he moves forward?"
Austin Beutner: Sure Paul, it's good to hear from you and good to see you again. I don't know Mr. Carvalho, I've not met him, so I can't comment on what he'll be able to do, but I do hope he's successful because we need him to be successful. I believe the answer lies in the community. You know, one of the things that we did was change the leadership approach in Los Angeles Unified from one size fits all top down across 700 square miles, I don't think that works, and reorganized around 44 local leaders, much more responsive to local communities in which they serve. And I think that's bearing fruit. We started a program for early literacy during COVID called the Primary Promise, which actually I hope will be my legacy. I think that's the most important thing we did there, and meals and computers, fantastic, I'm glad we were able to step up and do that. But the holy grail of public education is early literacy. Well less than half of children across the nation, this not unique to Los Angeles. Children in elementary are not at grade level in reading, and there are study, after study, after study, if you leave elementary school after you're learning to read, you are reading to learn. So if you leave elementary school less than grade level proficient, you're gonna have a struggle. But if we can fix that, if we can go from 35 or 40%, to 75 or 80, or even 90%, the world changes in public education. And what we did during COVID was treat that issue like we treated the need for COVID tests, or meals, or internet access in somebody's home. So we looked at the problem and said, "Hmm, we've got have one teacher in the classroom, "24 kids in a first grade class." And let's just say, half of them are a grade level, and that may be optimistic, but let's say half are. And the other help, the other 12 need help in three different areas. Phonemic awareness, which is what vowels and consonants sound like, decoding, which is what a word means, and comprehension, which is stitching 'em all together, and I'm oversimplifying for this audience a little bit. But what you find with 24 students, one classroom teacher in first grade is, she or he's got to run four concurrent classes at the same time, right? You kids are on track, do this, and I'm gonna help those who need individualized attention or small group in these other areas. Now, that contrasts sharply in a more affluent community with more funding, school funding or in a private school, you'd see two teachers. Now why is that? One teacher's working with a group of kids who are on track at grade level, the other is spending his or her time with small group or individualized instruction to help those children get on track. So we did was we hired every available reading specialist we could find, took 2,500 students who were struggling. Amongst the lowest achieving students in the grade, 9% at grade level, okay? And ordinarily 9% becomes 11 or 12 when there's a party. You know, we're making progress. Well, 9% became 42% in one semester, first graders. Extraordinary progress, caught up with their peers. Black students ahead of white students, English learners on par with their English language peers. So we showed it could be done. We expanded the program from K, I'm sorry, from first grade to K3, we expanded early numeracy math, 'cause the same principle applies, and dramatic change can happen. The bureaucracy didn't get in the way, we put the people down into each local community, let the schools figure out how to do it. We made sure that the principal, the reading specialist classroom teacher met every week to measure progress to figure out how they could help an individual student. So I think, Paul, maybe a little longer answer than you were looking for. I think it can be done, but I believe the answer lies in the classroom. And if we're looking for any new leader, whoever she or he is to be superhero, there are about 85,000 people who receive a paycheck from Los Angeles Unified. Each of them needs to feel empowered to act on behalf of the child that they're working with that day, and I think if we can do that, we're gonna see much more progress and more rapid progress like we've seen in Primary Promise.
Richard Green: So there's a good follow-up to that from my wonderful USC colleague, Collie Clayton-Duby. He says, "Your clarity on the challenges "and sharp call for tax-oriented government responses "across jurisdictional line is accurate. "How though, can we overcome the acute attention "politicians is paid at powerful and influential people "in contrast to the broader, if less engaged communities." And part of the, you know, that the statement "less engaged" really hits me, 'cause if I remember correctly, in the last mayoral election, turnout was less than 20%. So that it reflects a real--
Austin Beutner: Well less, well less.
Richard Green: Yeah, I was trying to be kind.
Austin Beutner: That was back to numeracy when I was a publisher at the Times. In some election, 8.9% of people voted, and that was the headline, the initial headline. And I said, isn't the stronger point more than 90% of people didn't, rather than the decimal point on the 8.9? And so they, with one of the virtues of digital is you could AB test the headlines. And so I said, "Just do me a favor. "I'm not the editor, but just for a hot minute, "put up the more than 90% of people didn't vote." And guess what? That brought people's attention, to your point. You know, more than 80% of people did not vote in a mayor's race when they had a chance to. And I think that, in answer to your colleague, therein lies the challenge, right? If we can help people understand they have the power, they can make change. That's exactly why we created these 44 community-oriented leadership teams in Los Angeles schools. The community already exists, but if we can help the people in Boyle Heights understand these are their schools, that they don't have to go to Bodry and some distant bureaucracy to try and see change made, but they can talk to a school principal right in their neighborhood, they can walk there. They don't have to take a bus, they don't have to take a car. They don't have to wait in line all day at a board meeting. They can just walk right to school, a group of families and say, "We'd like to see better done here, and here's why", it's gonna happen. But we suffer from diffuse government, diffuse message. We suffer from local media, which don't, in my mind, do enough to chronicle the day in, day out and the tick tock in Los Angeles. So I don't know that they're doing all they can to hold elected officials or organizations accountable when they should and could. Again, one of the things I wish I had done more of in the LA Times, we relaunched what we called the California Section, 'cause it was my view that that, if the LA Times stood for anything, it had to stand for Los Angeles and California. It's not more than four or six pages these days, that should be about 44 pages. And that has to be the emphasis. So to your point, I think it's Mr. Professor, how do we help committees understand they do have a voice, 'cause the special interest will always be there. They're the permanent companion to government, fortunately or unfortunately in a system like we have. But where communities have found a voice where those with agency like Professor Green have worked with communities to help them translate that voice into real agency, action happens. And I'm the optimist, you know, I think that we're gonna bring this amazing coalition together to do the right thing for kids in public schools, and something will happen that is a good thing. Didn't exist six months ago. Six months from now, we're gonna be celebrating the fact that every child will have the opportunity to participate in arts and music at their public school. So we can make change, but it's gonna take people who haven't been involved to get involved.
Richard Green: So I hope you'll forgive me, but I'm gonna ask you about something a little abstract as a follow-up to some of the things you've just said. So there's a professor at Dartmouth, an economics professor at Dartmouth named William Fischel. I don't know if you've heard of him or not.
Austin Beutner: I happen to be a Dartmouth graduate, so I have heard of him.
Richard Green: Oh, okay. So I mean-
Austin Beutner: I thought you were setting me up, geez okay.
Richard Green: Okay yeah, I should have known that. So I will tell you I'm a fan of Bill's work, even if I don't always agree with it, but one of the things he talks about in terms of schools is that local funding is associated with higher performing schools. And of course we really don't have that here in California. Property taxes flow to Sacramento and then are redistributed. Would a reform in how schools are funded do you think make a difference in the performance of California schools? And just one other example, I lived in Montgomery County, Maryland before I lived here, which was a very large school district. Montgomery County has about a million people. And so the idea that you can't have a big excellent school district is just wrong. My kids got a great education there. But it not only was locally funded with a combination of property and income taxes, but also, for the school to increase its spending, it needed to go to the ballot every, it was two years or four years or something thing like that. And the parents came out and they voted 70-30 to approve more funding however often they had to do it. So it's not like it was really an issue to get it done, but it did create this sort of very profound connection between people paying for the schools and the schools. And I often said, the best and worst job in the world must have been to be a principal of Montgomery County schools. The reason it was the best job in the world is 'cause the parents cared so much. And the reason it was the worst job in the world is 'cause the parents cared so much. So is, you know, does funding have to be part of what creates the sense of community that leads to better outcomes?
Austin Beutner: I think what's happening a little bit in Montgomery is you're conflating funding and local accountability You know, Montgomery is a bit more blessed than so many of the community is served by Los Angeles Unified, more than 80% of students living in poverty. And so what we gotta be careful about is a conversation of Boyle Heights to say, there's only gonna be the support for schools in Boyle Heights that the tax base here will support. I think that's wrong. Now I do think the pony in the pile is more local accountability, more voice in terms of where the money goes, how it's used. California is a country, right? There are 40 million people, so diffused. There are 1,037 school districts. The largest is Los Angeles Unified. The smallest is Redwood Elementary School District with about 500 students. And so there's one size fits all form of governance. The rules are all Sacramento rules about what can happen in the classroom, how it all works, how the funding formulas work. I don't even know where Redwood Elementary School District is, but I'm assuming it's near Redwood. It's a very, very different community than Los Angeles Unified. You know, we struggled during COVID with a set of rules that were county-wide, and La Canada is in the county of Los Angeles, as is Boyle Heights. Two very different communities. The prevalence of COVID was dramatically different, and actually found it stunning that a state system said, "Well, each school district can decide "what they wanna do about COVID. "But by the way, we have a state law "which mandates the official size "of a first grade classroom." We have state laws that decide whether how old you have to be go into a tanning salon. So there's no shortage of rules and regulations. The state education code is about the length of four Bibles of the Old Testament. That's an awful lot of reading for someone to do someday. So I think what the professor is conflating, maybe local funding and accountability in many people's minds, if I'm gotta pay for it, I'm gonna look carefully. So I understand that connection. But it's clear, we have to make sure those communities that don't have sufficient resource in the community receive the support they need. So purely the local dollar being the only dollar is difficult. But going back to my point about Los Angeles Unified as 44 locally led, locally organized communities, I hope that inspires the people, and the people in Boyle Heights understand, these are their schools. And if you can get that sense of connection like you see in Montgomery County, we're gonna make a lot more progress.
Richard Green: So, and by the way, so Massachusetts has something called a Foundation Plan that sort of tries to get at the best of both worlds, make sure every school has enough, but every marginal dollar is still sort of locally accounted for, but thank you for the answer. And this has been a wonderful hour, very informative. So again, thank you so much. I know you're doing so much, and you do want a work-life balance, which I can appreciate. And it's just been great to have you as part of Lusk Perspective, so thank you Austin for being here.
Austin Beutner: Yeah Richard, thank you for a chance to share thoughts. I appreciate the work you do, and I hope everyone in this audience today comes a little bit more inspired to find a way to be engaged. They probably are already by participating, and I hope everybody remembers, voteartsandminds.org, and please join us as we invest in a brighter future for public school kids. Thank you.