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L.A. Unified unlikely to rehire its inspector general

L.A. Unified unlikely to rehire its inspector general
Ken Bramlett is inspector general of L.A. Unified, the nation's second-largest school district. His contract expires at the end of June. (L.A. Unified School District)

The Los Angeles Board of Education has deadlocked over rehiring its top internal investigator, effectively dismissing him unless board members reconsider before the end of the month.

The board split evenly over rehiring Inspector General Ken Bramlett during a confidential closed-door portion of last week’s board meeting. His current contract expires at the end of June.

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Bramlett’s departure would raise questions about the future of an office established as a watchdog over the nation’s second-largest school system.

Some critics — inside and outside L.A. Unified — say his forced departure could undermine accountability efforts, including overseeing independently operated charter schools. But others say the board members who voted not to rehire him had lost confidence in Bramlett, especially in light of recent allegations that he had tolerated a hostile work environment after employees complained about his chief deputy.

The school-board tally, according to district sources in senior management who were not authorized to speak on the record, was 3 to 3, with one member, Ref Rodriguez, abstaining. The vote, which happened outside of public view, was not announced even though California law requires the reporting of all actions taken.

Interviewed Friday, district general counsel David Holmquist declined to confirm the vote and said the board has no obligation to report a decision not to approve a proposed contract — for Bramlett or anyone else.

The vote was first reported by radio station KPCC.

Bramlett, who has held the job for five years, declined to discuss his status, saying only: “I love this district, and I love the kids in the district. … I tried to do everything we could do to protect their resources so the district could give them everything it could.”

The votes against Bramlett came from a new majority bloc that took control last year. Its members were elected with substantial financial support from charter school advocates. On the other side were three board members who are retired school district administrators.

Rodriguez, who belongs to the charter-supported bloc, recused himself from the vote because he’s been under investigation by the inspector general’s office for alleged conflicts of interest. Separately, Rodriguez faces criminal charges of political money laundering. He has denied wrongdoing.

Rodriguez’s recusal had the same effect as a vote against Bramlett, who fell one vote short of the needed majority.

Several charter schools have become mired in lengthy investigations by Bramlett’s office. On a few occasions, such probes resulted in criminal charges; they also have contributed to recommendations that the board vote to close certain schools.

L.A. Unified has more charters and charter students than any other school district. About 18% of LAUSD students are enrolled in charters.

After the charter-supported board majority took control last July, charter leaders pressed for changes to L.A. Unified oversight.

The charter wishlist included limiting the reach of the inspector general. In a compromise last November, charters achieved some bureaucratic relief but the inspector general’s authority remained intact.

Bramlett became vulnerable, however, as his three-year contract neared an end, especially after recent allegations that his top deputy and senior investigator Frank Cabibi repeatedly made racially and sexually tinged comments. Cabibi, who could not be reached for comment, recently resigned.

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Bramlett’s defenders contend that a full investigation could exonerate Bramlett.

It’s unfair to let him go before this necessary fact-finding is complete, said former school board member David Tokofsky, who supported the original establishment of the office, about 20 years ago. He said he worried that the complaints could be a pretext to get rid of Bramlett and weaken the office’s authority.

L.A. Unified is the only California school district with an inspector general. The office was established as the district was beginning the nation’s largest school construction program.

With that effort ended, it may be time to rethink whether that office’s central functions can be managed in other ways, potentially saving money and preventing bureaucratic overreach, said Myrna Castrejón, executive director of Great Public Schools Now, which helps fund the establishment of new schools, including charters.

One vote against Bramlett was from board President Monica Garcia, the longest serving board member; the others were from Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez, who’ve been in office for less than a year. Melvoin and Gonez have been notably outspoken about the #MeToo movement and making sure that L.A. Unified does not tolerate locker-room talk and other forms of sexual harassment.

Senior district officials declined to discuss Bramlett’s contract or the complaints.

Bramlett declined to criticize board members or discuss the allegations.

“All complaints received in this office are taken very seriously,” he said. “And all are investigated thoroughly and the appropriate action is taken.”

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