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Contract extension for L.A. Unified inspector general falls through

Contract extension for L.A. Unified inspector general falls through
Ken Bramlett is no longer the inspector general at the L.A. Unified School District. (Howard Blume / Los Angeles Times /)

A deal to extend the contract of Ken Bramlett, L.A. Unified's inspector general, has fallen through after Bramlett declined to sign the contract.

Bramlett had no immediate comment but district officials confirmed that he did not return a signed agreement by June 30, when his previous three-year contract expired.

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There also have been two other major personnel changes — one arrival and one departure — at L.A. Unified since Austin Beutner took over in May.

Beutner’s first major hire is Rebecca Kockler, the assistant superintendent of academic content for the Louisiana Department of Education. She will serve as Beutner’s chief of staff.

Erika Torres, the director of student health and human services, is leaving the district for a job elsewhere. She and her staff had clashed with leaders of a nonprofit organization Beutner had founded before he became superintendent.

Early Monday, the school district told the Los Angeles Times that Deputy Inspector General Austin Onwualu would serve as the interim leader of the office that Bramlett led for five years.

Initially, an extension for Bramlett appeared to be a peacemaking compromise. The Board of Education had split 3-3 on keeping the district’s top internal watchdog. The seventh board member, Ref Rodriguez, recused himself because he is under investigation by the inspector general’s office for an alleged conflict of interest.

(Rodriguez also faces unrelated, pending criminal charges in connection with political money laundering. He has pleaded not guilty.)

The three board members opposed to Bramlett are part of a four-member majority — which includes Rodriguez — that was elected last year with major financial support from charter-school backers. Soon after this bloc became the majority, charter school leaders renewed longstanding complaints that the inspector general has treated their schools unfairly by launching unwarranted inquiries or probes that lasted years.

Charters are privately managed public schools and are exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses. But because most local charters are authorized by L.A. Unified, they have been subject to oversight that can include an audit or investigation by the inspector general.

Bramlett’s defenders point to these investigations and others as examples of solid work — noting that some have led to criminal charges or financial settlements.

However, Bramlett had some internal critics who said they were unhappy with his performance. They also questioned whether he had tolerated a hostile work environment. Bramlett’s top deputy, Frank Cabibi, recently resigned after being accused of making inappropriate and offensive comments to women and minority co-workers.

Bramlett has denied any wrongdoing.

His supporters saw the proposed three-month extension as an opportunity for the complaints to be examined. They predicted he would be exonerated and then could remain in the position. The proposed contract, however, included a requirement that he surrender the job without recourse after three months, according to district sources who saw the document but were not authorized to discuss it.

The new hire, Kockler, has been a key player in recent years in the aggressive and sometimes controversial reshaping of Louisiana’s education system following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which destroyed much of the school infrastructure in New Orleans.

Her fans applaud her background in teacher training and curriculum development. They give her special credit for improved numbers on the ACT college-entrance exam and increased test scores by African American students in English and math. Her critics insist these gains have been overstated and that Louisiana’s overall low academic performance is hardly a model.

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According to a release from L.A. Unified, “Kockler will work with Mr. Beutner and District leaders across all of L.A. Unified’s efforts, and will lead the transition of the new administration.”

Torres is leaving to take a higher-salaried post as deputy superintendent at the L.A. County Office of Education. The county office is much smaller than the city school system but plays an important role in overseeing local school district budgets, including that of L.A. Unified, and in running programs for disabled students and for students convicted of crimes.

Earlier this year, Torres was involved in a disagreement over the performance of Vision to Learn, which Beutner started to provide free glasses for needy students. Senior district managers working under Torres asserted that the nonprofit had fallen far behind in delivering on a $6 million contract. They threatened to cancel the agreement. The nonprofit disputed the negative characterization, insisting that L.A. Unified was responsible for delays in providing services.

When he accepted the job as superintendent, Beutner agreed to sever any ties to Vision to Learn to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. He has since turned over the board chair’s position to his wife, Virginia Beutner. He remains listed on the site as the organization’s founder.

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