I had lunch with Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. David Brewer earlier this year at a restaurant near downtown Los Angeles and almost choked. Not on the food, but the prices.
I wasn't that hungry, fortunately, so I had the Chinese chicken salad, which cost an eye-popping $28.95. Brewer wasn't famished either, so he just had an appetizer, the crab cakes, and those ran $16.95.
Over lunch, he defended himself against widespread criticism that he's the wrong man for the job and has been a big disappointment. But instead of talking about students, he went on and on about building a "matrix" system and "vertical" as well as "horizontal articulation." By the end of it I had an expensive stomachache.
The L.A. Times picked up the tab, but Brewer had chosen the restaurant and he seemed to know his way around there, so I started wondering if his tastes always run so high-end. To find out, I called the school district and requested all of his expense reports dating back to his hiring in 2006.
When the documents arrived, much of the information had been blacked out. Why? Because several high-level officials use the same credit card account, I was told, and I hadn't asked for their expenses; only Brewer's.
But there wasn't much listed for Brewer, other than airfare and hotels, so I asked if perhaps his restaurant tabs had been blacked out as well?
No, I was told by the district's lawyer. He pays for meals and other things from an expense account that was written into his contract. He just gets that money and doesn't have to account for it.
Forty-five grand, I was told.
Not bad at all. I could see myself developing a Pacific Dining Car habit with that kind of pocket money.
He also gets a $3,000 monthly housing allowance, the district lawyer added. All of which sits on top of his $300,000-a-year salary.
Just a month before that lunch, I had been to a meeting at my daughter's public school, where parents were asked to donate $500 per child or we'd lose three instructional aides. No telling what will be asked of us now that bigger cuts are looming.
Meanwhile, as the L.A. Unified school board seems ready to finally admit its blockheaded blunder in hiring a Navy man with no education experience to run the nation's second-largest school district, Brewer is fighting to keep his job. And he's still collecting -- in expense account payments alone -- the equivalent of one year's pay for a starting teacher.
Friday morning I had breakfast at a more reasonably priced restaurant, the Original Pantry Cafe, with Ben Austin, a current school board candidate and former deputy to ex-Mayor Richard Riordan. Austin, who now works as a consultant for the Green Dot charter schools, said he'd give the heave-ho to the admiral if he had a vote, but the problems are bigger than Brewer.
They're tinkering with a bureaucracy that needs to be blown up, Austin said.
"These are revolutionary times and they're going with pilot programs."
The only way to look at the job, Austin said, whether you're an administrator or board member, a teacher or union official, is to point to the nearest school and ask yourself:
"Would I send my own daughter there?"
A lot of public elementary schools in L.A. Unified, like the one in my neighborhood, are pretty good. But once middle and high school come into play, most people have three lousy choices:
Take whatever you get at the neighborhood public school.
Come up with the $25,000 for private school.
Or devote half your life to cracking the magnet school code.
My wife told me the other day that it's time to start playing that game. Before she completed the first sentence, I felt stabbing pains behind my eyeballs, but she had only begun the torture.
The way it works, she said, is that we have to start applying to magnet schools.
Our daughter's perfectly happy at her neighborhood school.
We're supposed to apply to schools she's not likely to get into, she explained, because then "you get points if you're rejected." You work toward building up enough of them that by middle school you've got enough priority to get into the magnet you were aiming for all along.
She did not appear to be kidding.
"What if we apply and she gets accepted now, at one of the magnet schools we don't want her to go to yet?" I asked.
"I don't know," my wife said.
This is why people move to South Pasadena.
And it's why we don't have time for more of David Brewer's on-the-job training.
As for the race angle and reports that some local leaders would like to keep Brewer, an African American, where he is, I say that if the house is burning and children are at risk, you want experience at the fire hose, regardless of skin color.
Austin said he thought Brewer had good intentions. But, he noted, 90% of the district's students don't go to college and 50% don't graduate.
"It's an understatement to say the system is broken. And you need more than just little cuts in bureaucracy; you need to change the job of the bureaucracy."
Austin believes there's hope in the Green Dot model, which is now getting its most challenging test with its recent takeover of L.A. Unified's perennial disaster: Locke High School. It's way too soon to know if dividing the school into small campuses, and giving teachers more authority but requiring more accountability, will produce results.
But as it is, Austin said, there's little accountability in L.A. Unified. Brewer got a four-year contract and Dining Car perks with no performance standards, and although the vast majority of teachers are solid, getting rid of the lousy ones is mission impossible.
"It's all about politics and never about the kids," Austin said.
Brewer, if you ask me, doesn't deserve as much blame as do school board members who were gullible enough to be dazzled by a guy with laudable desire but no applicable credentials.
For future reference:
If a superintendent candidate comes in quoting the corporate management book "Good to Great," as Brewer did, suggest that he apply to run Nabisco, not a 700,000-child school district.
Of course, the perks probably wouldn't be nearly as good as they are at L.A. Unified.