Ex-Admiral Is Named New Schools Chief
The Los Angeles Board of Education unanimously selected retired Navy Vice Adm. David L. Brewer III to be the next superintendent Thursday amid a battle for control of the school system between the board and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Brewer, 60, who left the Navy in March, is a non-educator who, school board members say, impressed them with his intelligence, accomplishments and leadership skills. He recently headed the Military Sealift Command, where he oversaw the supply chain for equipment, fuel and ammunition for U.S. forces worldwide. He was in charge of more than 8,000 military and civilian personnel and about 120 ships.
“I’m honored and humbled to be selected as the next superintendent of L.A. Unified and look forward to working with all the stakeholders in the city for the children of Los Angeles,” said Brewer, who spoke briefly when reached by phone. The school board intends to introduce him at a morning news conference.
Despite broad management experience, Brewer has never run a school district, let alone one which is the scene of a rhetorical and legal war between Villaraigosa and the school board.
The mayor, who is in Asia on a trade mission, said he hoped that the new superintendent would be an advocate for change in the district but that he was disappointed with the board’s selection process.
Members of the committee that turned over the names of five finalists for the job predicted that the admiral would have the skills and experience to take charge.
Running the Los Angeles Unified School District is about “managing a complex organization with limited resources. That’s what it comes down to,” said Scott Plotkin, executive director of the California School Boards Assn. “That and inspiring, leading people. Brewer will be a true leader for the district and a force in the community on behalf of the district, which is something they badly need.”
After meeting all day in closed session, members of the school board unexpectedly announced their unanimous decision just before 7 p.m. Thursday in a brief public session before a virtually empty boardroom.
Board President Marlene Canter called Brewer “a giant of a man” who has “education in his DNA” -- his mother was a teacher for more than four decades. His wife is a middle school teacher with a doctorate. Canter predicted that Brewer, who will move from the Washington, D.C., area to take the job, would become a civic leader in Los Angeles.
“His leadership capabilities, his intellect, his experience led us to believe, without really any doubt, that this man will be able to take on the second-largest school district and represent every single kid,” Canter said.
She said Brewer could take control of the district in as quickly as a month. The length of Brewer’s contract and his salary remain to be negotiated. Canter indicated, however, that she expected the board to offer Brewer a multiyear contract.
“Longevity is important,” she said, adding that Brewer “made it very clear to us that he understood that this is not a short-term job.”
Before he departed, Villaraigosa insisted that the board should await his return and include him in the selection process. He wanted to review the entire list of potential candidates.
But Villaraigosa and the school board were unable to agree on a role for the mayor. The school board’s last and best offer was to let Villaraigosa interview finalists and provide input, much like a school board member -- provided that he ultimately supported the board’s choice.
The mayor declined, insisting on a role more consistent with new powers he would have as of Jan. 1, when a law giving him substantial authority over local schools is scheduled to take effect.
Under the Villaraigosa-backed legislation, the mayor would be able to veto the hiring and firing of superintendents through a council of local mayors that he would dominate. The fate of the law itself is in limbo because of a legal challenge filed Tuesday by the school district and others.
Canter said she notified the mayor’s office immediately after the board’s decision.
The reaction from City Hall and district critics was immediate.
“I am deeply disappointed that the school board would move ahead with selecting a superintendent without the participation of the council of mayors, parents and the Los Angeles community,” Villaraigosa told The Times. “I’m hopeful that I will have the opportunity to meet with Mr. Brewer and discuss his qualifications and philosophy about education reform. I’m looking forward to working with him, parents and teachers to improve our schools.”
The response was less measured from state Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who co-sponsored the legislation that gave Villaraigosa his sought-after authority.
“Maybe they got it right choosing an admiral because this is like the Titanic, a sinking ship,” Romero said. “I don’t know the admiral, and I will meet the admiral. But this is a complete mockery, a complete snubbing of the mayor and the will of the Legislature. This is the school board thumbing their noses in the most horrendous way. They’re going to get their guy without giving a damn about anything that has occurred in Los Angeles or in California in the last year and a half.”
The school board was in no mood to wait for the new rules to take effect or even for the mayor to return from abroad Oct. 22. It delivered its verdict less than two weeks after a search committee turned over five names.
“The timing of the mayor’s trip had nothing to do with this,” Canter said. “The mayor has his job; he has his calendar; he has his agenda. He’s doing his work. We have our work, our own schedule. We started this in February.”
In choosing Brewer, with his commander’s bearing and impressive resume, the school board hopes to insulate itself from complaints that it acted hastily.
The mayor, in turn, if he is perceived as unfairly critical of Brewer, who is African American, runs the risk of backlash, particularly in the black community. In the last mayoral election, large numbers of voters in South Los Angeles switched from incumbent James K. Hahn to Villaraigosa in part because Hahn fired African American Police Chief Bernard C. Parks. And support for Villaraigosa’s move for control of the school district is mixed among members of the black community.
Brewer, a native of Farmville, Va., who was raised in Orlando, Fla., began his Navy career in 1970 after graduating from the historically black school Prairie View A&M; University in Texas. At the time, only 250 of 72,000 total officers were African Americans.
“I had a tough time. I had to overcome a lot of what I considered to be inherent bias in the Navy toward African Americans. But I did have a lot of role models along the way, both African American and white, and they really sustained me throughout my career,” Brewer said in an interview last year with The Black Collegian magazine.
His first assignment was as an electronic warfare officer aboard a guided missile cruiser. He moved up quickly through the ranks, holding a wide variety of positions including minority recruiting officer.
Late in his Navy career he earned a series of command roles, culminating with his sealift role in August 2001. He also served briefly as vice chief of naval education and training, which offers academic and naval training to sailors. In October, 2002, he was promoted to vice admiral.
Among board members, Brewer won the support of Monica Garcia, who is considered a staunch ally of the mayor.
“I would have liked to see a more transparent process and would have liked the mayor to have a role in the selection,” Garcia said.
But Brewer “presented an attitude of inclusion and an understanding that the district isn’t going to do this alone.”
Non-educators, including former military leaders, have a mixed record running school districts. The most notable example of a military leader who ran a school system is Army Maj. Gen. John Stanford, who headed the Seattle public schools from 1995 until his death from leukemia in 1998.
“John Stanford did an outstanding job of changing the perception of the school district of the business community and even the community of parents from quite negative to quite positive,” said Dick Clark of the Seattle-based Institute for Educational Inquiry.
Brewer will succeed another non-educator, former three-term Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who had announced plans to retire from L.A. Unified as soon as a successor could be named.
Romer had some advantages -- he had been considered a leader among governors on education issues and had substantial experience dealing with teacher unions in Colorado.
But Romer, for one, expressed no doubts about Brewer.
“Great decision,” Romer said. “He’ll be a great leader.”
Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein reported from Los Angeles; Times staff writer Duke Helfand reported from China.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
David L. Brewer III
* Hometown: Farmville, Va. Raised in Orlando, Fla.
* Previous job: Recently retired after 36 years in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of vice admiral. In his last post, he headed the Military Sealift Command, where he oversaw the supply chain for equipment, fuel and ammunition for U.S. forces worldwide. He was in charge of more than 8,000 people and 124 ships.
* Awards: Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit (three), Meritorious Service Medal (two) and the Navy Achievement Medal
* Education: Graduate of Prairie View A&M; University; attended Naval War College
* Family: Married; one child
Sources: U.S. Navy biography, Who’s Who in America, Times reports