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Admiral Aloof? Admiral AWOL

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When it comes to the management of the Los Angeles Unified School District, there is such a rich buffet of material lately, I hardly know where to begin.

My original intent today -- before the revelation that district officials allowed a vice principal back into a school despite allegations that he was having sex with an underage girl -- was to write more about the $232 million arts-focused high school now under construction in downtown Los Angeles. Among the school's frills, as I reported on Sunday, is a 140-foot spiral tower that resembles a log ride but has no practical purpose.

But let's make the jump here from log rides to logrolling, which is perhaps one way to describe the district's footwork in the case of the assistant principal, who faces criminal sex charges involving three students. He has denied wrongdoing.

To set up the story of former Assistant Principal Stephen Thomas Rooney, let me just play back the first paragraph of Tuesday's story by my colleagues Richard Winton and Howard Blume.

"Senior Los Angeles school officials, including the district's police chief and its former chief operating officer, knew of sex allegations against a school administrator months before he was transferred to a Watts middle school, where he allegedly molested two students, officials said Monday."

You read that and you can't help but wonder if Supt. David L. Brewer, the former Navy admiral who loves hiring consultants, has brought Cardinal Roger M. Mahony in as a senior advisor.

Police say they told the school district in early 2007 that Rooney was suspected of having sex with a Foshay Learning Center student from the time she was 15, and that he had been arrested for waving a gun at the girl's father.

On Tuesday, district officials released a memo dated Feb. 8, 2007, in which Chief Operating Officer Dan Isaacs (who has since retired) alerted colleagues that Rooney had been arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon.

"LAPD is also investigating allegations that he had an unlawful sexual relationship with a minor," said the Isaacs memo, which was addressed to Brewer and the members of the Board of Education, and other district officials.

Rooney was temporarily assigned to a non-school site. But then, inexplicably, he was transferred to Markham Middle School. There, he allegedly molested two students and is now looking at criminal charges involving all three students, including one charge of lewd acts involving a 13-year-old.

Did your jaw just drop, dear reader? Are you sitting there wondering how district officials could be so head-slappingly feckless?

You know, I often find myself defending the district against critics who think all problems are attributable to a bloated, entrenched bureaucracy. That's a simplification, I argue.

But I'm starting to wonder what all those wizards over at district headquarters do all day. They're the ones, let's remember, who paid $95 million for a new payroll system that overpaid district employees some $53 million even as it was underpaying others. And then we get a superintendent who never worked in education and doesn't appear to be on the command bridge as the ship drifts toward the rocks.

As I see it, Brewer's got big problems on the Rooney case. If he saw the Isaacs memo and didn't act on it, that's bad enough. If he didn't see the Isaacs memo, that may be worse. I know I called him Admiral Aloof on Sunday, but I didn't realize how accurate that was until I called the district Tuesday to see if he could explain himself.

Oh, sorry, I was told by a spokesperson, but he's out of town.

He's out of town? Yep, he's in San Diego, I was told.

Three under-age kids have allegedly been molested by an assistant principal, and the district's handling of it redefines the word "negligence." And the man in charge is unavailable?

Ramon C. Cortines, who seems to have become the de facto superintendent of late, sent out the district's statement on this sad affair late Tuesday. You'd think the matter was important enough for Brewer himself to get involved, but as the Cortines memo said, "Brewer was out of town to assess school practices in another city."

So let's get this straight. One of the biggest disasters of his administration is unfolding, and he is on a field trip to see how other school districts function?

But let's get back to Cortines, a good man who had the unenviable task of explaining the absent admiral's mess. He didn't quite clear things up to my satisfaction, despite two full pages of flow charts.

Flow charts. I kid you not.

Although the district has reassigned two administrators for their role in this fiasco, Cortines laid some blame on the LAPD for allegedly not communicating all the relevant details of the Rooney case to all the right district officials.

Silly me. I would have thought that notifying the district's chief of police and its chief operating officer would have covered the bases.

Cortines' statement also claimed that district officials sent Rooney to Markham Middle School "without knowing that he had engaged in sexual misconduct with a student."

Huh?

I quote again from the Isaacs memo, which predates the transfer by several months:

"LAPD is also investigating allegations that he had an unlawful sexual relationship with a minor."

Is anything in that sentence unclear?

At the risk of distracting Brewer in the middle of his big important field trip to San Diego, I'd like to suggest the following:

No need to hurry back, admiral. Lots of ships down there in San Diego, so why not go back to your first love? A career change by you might be good for everyone, especially the 700,000 students of L.A. Unified.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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