NOT even the worst budget crisis in California history can erode the invincible popularity of Ramon C. Cortines, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District. Several months ago, the superintendent stood before a meeting of the teachers union announcing massive teacher layoffs. ``It was devastating news, but people applauded him anyway,'' says Joan-Marie Shelley, president of the union.
``They applauded because I told them the truth,'' says Mr. Cortines, a slight, energetic man who is well-known for speaking his mind. Known as ``Ray,'' he is widely recognized as one of the most successful urban superintendents in the United States, and is among the 16 percent of minority urban school leaders.
Before taking over this ethnically diverse 62,000-student school district in 1986, Cortines was superintendent in Pasadena and San Jose, Calif.
Although some criticize the superintendent for trying to do everything and sometimes stepping on toes in the process, Cortines defends his hands-on management style. ``School systems get in trouble when the chief administrative officer doesn't know what's happening,'' he says.
Overseeing a budget of $425 million, Cortines has brought change in a number of areas during his five years leading San Franscisco's 116 schools. For example:
* A 30 percent dropout rate has been reduced to 16 percent.
* Absenteeism has been cut by 20 percent through a new program of class-by-class attendance reports. Students who cut classes frequently are targeted for counseling and other support.
* Although a disproportionate number of blacks are still being suspended from San Francisco schools, the overall suspension rate has been cut by almost half.
* A core curriculum is now in place for the district.
* All middle-school students must now take algebra, a foreign language, and three years of science.
Cortines is not only a talented educator but also a natural politician - with an instinct for public relations. ``The greatest thing Cortines has done is to really unify the district. He has sold San Francisco schools to the public,'' says Carlos Arturo Garcia, principal of Horace Mann Academic Middle School here.
Cortines has a reputation as one of the most accessible big-city superintendents around. He comes into the office at 6 every morning and works double-digit days - at least 10 hours, sometimes seven days a week. ``Any parent that calls him, he will personally talk with,'' Mr. Garcia says. ``I don't know how he does it. If any employee wants to talk with him, he'll call within the day.'' The superintendent makes unannounced visits to schools about three times a week and keeps in close touch with principal s and teachers.
But Cortines is well aware that his popularity is not universal. He's had frequent clashes with the seven-member board of education. ``I'm not loved by everybody,'' he says. ``I don't even think I'm loved by anybody. There's some respect. They know they can talk to me. They know that I have a quick temper and that I will apologize when I'm wrong,'' he adds, hinting at what many consider to be his most difficult characteristic.
This is a superintendent who cares passionately about what happens in the San Francisco schools. But it is his personalized leadership style and tenacious commitment to the job that have sometimes gotten him into trouble.
``He has a tendency to shoot from the hip,'' Ms. Shelley says. ``He chews people out mercilessly.''
After a recent bout with the school board, Cortines announced that he would retire this summer, two years before his contract was scheduled to expire. But in further negotiations, he agreed to stay on until August 1992 in order to help carry the district through the current fiscal crunch - and allow time for a thorough superintendent search.
This was not the first time Cortines threatened to quit after going head-to-head with the board, say board members and others in the district. But he insists there was only one other time. ``I felt that my integrity was being threatened and so I walked out,'' he says of that incident.
But Libby Denebeim, a 10-year veteran of the school board, recalls three or four instances in which the superintendent threatened to quit over a disagreement. ``He has a volatile side,'' she says.
Although Cortines may be most frequently accused of this sort of behavior, others are in the same situation. ``A lot of these big-city superintendents threaten to quit,'' says James Guthrie, education professor at the University of California, Berkeley. ``In part, it's the frustration of the job. They believe it's some kind of bargaining ploy with their board.''
To further complicate matters in San Francisco, Cortines was recently offered a position with the US Department of Education, selling the president's ``America 2000'' education strategy throughout the country. ``I've made it very clear that I have a responsibility here first,'' Cortines says. ``Do I want to take the job? The answer is yes. I think it would be exciting.'' But it is unlikely the government could hold the position open until Cortines's new contract expires next August.
Meanwhile, JoAnne Miller, president of the school board, says the superintendent ``has been frantically trying to find a way to get out of his contract. He wants to pick a fight so he can walk away and be a hero.''
The morning after a board-superintendent meeting last month Ms. Miller met with the Monitor for an interview. She said she was flabbergasted over some recent news. ``I turned on the radio at 7 this morning and heard that the superintendent will be leaving in June. That he's going to take the job with the Department of Education. Well, I thought that was very interesting,'' she continued, ``since he had had an hour-and-a-half meeting in closed session with the board and never mentioned it. And yet on the radio he is quoted - it's his voice - saying that he has this offer and he'd like to get the budget problem out of the way and be able to go.
``That's Cortines' style,'' Miller says. ``He has tried to pit board member against board member and it hasn't worked with this board.''
The previous San Francisco school board was overwhelmed with fractious, political infighting of the sort many big-city boards are confronting. But three of the current board members were newly elected in January and two others have been on the board less than two years. ``Our old board was bickering, quarrelsome,'' Mrs. Denebeim says. ``Now we're starting fresh. It's a breath of fresh air.''
And the board wants to improve the stale air between itself and the chief administrator too, Miller says. Cortines is ``a one-man band,'' she explains. ``His management style is certainly not the kind of management style that we're going to be looking for in a new superintendent. We want to look for a team player; we want somebody who works with the board, who doesn't go around denouncing the board at every turn....''
It's not that the San Francisco school board considers Cortines an ineffective superintendent. ``Ray has done a good job; we've improved in many, many areas,'' Miller says. ``The dissatisfaction with him isn't in the educational arena, it's in the area of how he conducts business with the board. How he treats people in general.''
Cortines says that he's only doing his job. ``I think you can have disagreements,'' he says of the relationships between superintendents and boards, ``but I don't think that you have a responsibility to say what people want to hear. Servitude went out in the late 1800s.... I think that I have a responsibility to say what I think - and generally do.''
For now, the superintendent is promising to fulfill his contract and the board is going forward with its search for a new superintendent to take over in 1992. ``Of course everybody wants an accomplished urban superintendent - somebody who you know can do the job. But there are few of those people left,'' acknowledges Miller. ``So who do you get for superintendent? I don't think we have the means within, unfortunately. There's nobody to bring up.''
In fact, Deputy Superintendent Linda F. Davis says she wouldn't consider the job. ``It's heartbreaking because I thought at one time that I'd like to be a superintendent,'' she says. ``But over the last decade, I've become more and more disenchanted with the role of superintendent. It's such a politically connected role.''
Ninety to 95 percent of a superintendent's time is spent ``nurturing school-board members,'' Davis notes. ``I'm down in the trenches more,'' she says, concluding that she can make more of a difference in her current job.
Such disinterest from within coupled with the competition for proven administrators is forcing the San Francisco board to broaden its search. ``We're going to be more open this time,'' Miller says. ``Maybe our next superintendent won't come through the ranks, maybe they'll come from business or from a university.''
On this point, Cortines and the board agree. ``I think a business person could run a school system,'' he says. ``We need to take some chances on some people; we're not attracting the right people.'' In fact, he says, ``we're picking hucksters.''
Both boards and superintendent candidates are to blame, Cortines says. ``The superintendent has been considered a miracle worker - and we're not. We don't talk enough about what we can or can't do. We'll promise the world to get the job. And board members don't help superintendents be realistic.''
Another problem, say Cortines and others, is that when boards set out to hire a new superintendent they usually look for someone who is predictable rather than a risk-taker.
Garcia, the middle-school principal, quotes Einstein to make the point: ``The thinking which created the problems we have today is insufficient to solve them.''
``If you really want to change education,'' Garcia argues, ``you need to look for the people out there who are actually doing things that are radically different.''
But under the current system, most of those people wouldn't even be considered for a big-city superintendency. ``There's an informal protocol in education,'' Garcia says, that requires superintendents to move through the ranks. By the time they've paid their dues they've lost sight of what's actually going on in schools.
Cortines is concerned about who will take over the San Francisco schools when he leaves.
``I want the system to be responsive to the people it serves,'' Cortines says, ``That's probably the legacy that I will leave: `Hey, Cortines did it. Why can't you do it?'''