Opinion

Supt. Brewer's failings

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The Los Angeles Unified School District is not without accomplishment. It has recently seen student test scores improve, and it is on track with a vast, long-term effort to build enough schools for all of its students. But along with much of California, the district is heading into troubled times -- largely financial -- that threaten its classrooms and students, and that will test its management and educational skills. This is a treacherous moment for a school district that has long operated on the edge of failure, and it demands unimpeachable leadership. In such a moment, the district cannot afford a superintendent who holds the title but isn't up to the job.

Retired Vice Adm. David L. Brewer reaches the second anniversary of his four-year contract today. We liked him from the start -- his intelligence and affability were and are strengths -- though we had reservations about whether he had the necessary political and educational acumen. Time has only exacerbated those concerns.

Brewer started off with good intentions and big plans. Since those early months, however, he has done little to inspire loyalty and much to stoke misgiving. He stumbled in putting together his command team and responded to crises with flow charts and management-speak. He was unable to dissuade the school board from shelling out close to $35 million the district didn't have so that cafeteria workers could receive health benefits, a noble gesture to those workers but one that came at the expense of students. He was either unable or unwilling to talk the board into putting a financial package on the Nov. 4 ballot that would have provided for both construction and instruction. Most of his own ideas -- such as getting rid of bad teachers or creating a mini-district for failing schools -- faded out or were scaled back until they were hardly recognizable.

Eventually, Brewer's accumulated missteps -- and his dismaying lack of prowess -- led to an arrangement in which he ceded much of his authority while preserving the illusion of his leadership, a revision of his job description that avoided roiling the city's ever-tenuous racial politics. Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines was hired in April to oversee academic matters for the district, while Brewer continued to preside over administrative matters such as payroll and construction; Brewer also acts as a public figurehead and attends the protracted board meetings. This is classic Los Angeles politics: Administrative and racial comity is achieved by paying two superintendent-level salaries for one complete superintendent-level package. It also typifies all that is wrong with L.A. Unified. The district protects administrators who fail rather than students whose futures depend on a solid education.

Brewer does not deserve all the blame for his administration's ineffectiveness. He inherited a highly politicized district and a gutless bureaucracy, both stymied by a teachers union that is effective at defending its membership but too often indifferent to the needs of students. The board majority that hired Brewer acted too hastily to bring him aboard, eager to close the deal before Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa could gain more control over the district; the newly elected board majority that followed clearly gave its allegiance to the mayor, not the new superintendent.

For his part, Brewer was overconfident about his ability to navigate the political shoals that lay ahead. Shortly after starting his job, he was confronted with an enormous payroll snafu, as a new computer system put in place by his predecessor repeatedly spat out inaccurate checks -- for months, some teachers were overpaid, some paid not at all. Though Brewer tackled the problem competently, he also compounded it, first by trying to blame district employees for the mess and then by hiring expensive and ineffectual public relations consultants to spin a new image for the district.

Today, L.A. Unified confronts a budget shortfall of at least $200 million. It is faced with the possibility of closing schools and laying off staff. There is talk of curtailing elective courses and preschool offerings. Students stand to suffer, as do teachers. Supt. Brewer, meanwhile, continues to receive $300,000 a year plus hefty perks.

Halfway through his contract, it's no longer time to voice hopes or to prod Brewer toward action. In the interests of the students he is charged with educating, Brewer and the board should acknowledge that he isn't a good fit for the job of superintendent. They should chart a graceful course for his departure and embark on it sooner rather than later.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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