All Eyes Are on Schools Chief as He Takes Stage
A curious Los Angeles and a miffed mayor got a first look Friday morning at the next superintendent of schools as retired Vice Adm. David L. Brewer III said he is ready to challenge himself and the community to improve the lives of the city’s children.
Among school district officials and allies, the mood was buoyant. Across the city, there were kudos, a lot of head-scratching and assorted misgivings -- not so much about the admiral, but about a selection process that excluded Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa despite legislation, signed by the governor last month, aimed at giving him substantial authority over local schools.
Strategically, observers defined the choice of Brewer, a non-educator, as potent one-upmanship by the school board versus a mayor who is rarely outmaneuvered. Villaraigosa wanted the power to pick a superintendent, but instead the school board chose his future collaborator in school reform. Reversing that decision would entail both political risk and practical hurdles for the mayor, who is traveling in Asia.
The first, most obvious question of the day was voiced by the new chief himself near the start of a morning news conference at school district headquarters.
“I know all of you all want to know, ‘Well, who is this guy? Who is he? What makes him think that he’s gonna run the second-largest school district in the United States?’ ” Brewer told a packed conference room. “Let me tell you something, when we talk about ... the DNA of Dave Brewer. Dave Brewer is the son of educators.”
In presenting his qualifications, Brewer, 60, didn’t speak of managing supply operations for U.S. armed forces abroad. He didn’t talk about his testimony on military issues before Congress. He barely got into educational philosophy except in the most general terms.
Instead, he listed family ties. He mentioned his mother, an elementary school teacher into her 80s, and his late father, a teacher for more than 30 years as well as a school food-services manager who refused to serve soda and junk food in the 1950s. “He was a pioneer before his time,” said Brewer, who cut a military-sharp figure in a pressed gray suit, brown-and-yellow silk tie and burgundy leather shoes.
The list of educators went on, including Brewer’s wife and members of her family. But though Brewer couldn’t put himself on that list, he showed neither defensiveness nor insecurity.
“To everybody in this community, you can expect one thing: I am not a reformer; I am a transformer,” Brewer said. “I am going to transform this district into -- not a No Child Left Behind Act district. That is a low star. This is a global, global economy. This is a world in which our children have to compete globally. We’re going to shoot for world-class.”
Brewer reached out to Villaraigosa, whose name he mangled -- like many newcomers before him -- as Villa-ga-rosa. Brewer echoed the mayor in speaking of a community mission.
“If you live here, you have a stake in the education of these children,” Brewer said. “You will find me in your churches. You will find me in your communities. You’re going to find me touching you on the street, if I see you, saying, ‘What are you doing for the children of the L.A. Unified School District?’ Whether you want to do a fundraiser, whether you want to stand on a corner and watch kids go across.... We’re going to find a role for you.”
At moments, the gathering had a church-revival flavor, with “amens” and a “say it, brother” punctuating a room crowded with media and well-wishers.
Board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte turned to an acquaintance and whispered, “Is this a party or what?”
When Brewer asked for some water, board member Jon Lauritzen beamed, “Bring him a few thousand gallons!”
Still, district aides were evidently nervous. They prepared talking points for Brewer that spoke of a district “truly on the move,” citing rising test scores and new campuses.
Another crib sheet, titled “Possible Question/Answer,” featured suggestions to such potentially tricky queries as: “Do you feel your job is somehow in jeopardy if you and the mayor don’t see eye-to-eye?”
Brewer needed none of that, preferring to speak extemporaneously.
So, are his political skills and experience up to the challenge?
“If you don’t have butterflies, something’s wrong with you,” Brewer said, “but I also have confidence in myself.”
In a later interview, he said that as head of the Military Sealift Command from 2001 to this year, he managed a unionized civilian fleet with both federal workers and private contractors. Before that, he was No. 2 at the Naval Education and Training Command, which developed remedial and degree programs -- online and in more traditional classrooms -- and provided basic and advanced training to recruits.
But Brewer made no claims to being an education expert, saying that he would bring in experts as needed.
“My political skills are -- you will find out,” he said, laughing. He showed some of them by making a point to praise retiring Supt. Roy Romer.
Villaraigosa had to settle for his first look at Brewer on video; he’s on a trade mission in China. He’d wanted a prominent role in the superintendent choice, and he certainly wanted the board to wait until his return.
He got neither.
Thursday, the mayor expressed displeasure and disappointment. Friday, the only comment from his office spoke of his eagerness to meet with Brewer.
Both the board and Brewer are talking about a four-year contract. The only obvious way for Villaraigosa to quickly dismiss Brewer would be to campaign to elect a new school board majority in March. Under the new legislation, scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, Villaraigosa could only veto the hiring and firing of a superintendent. The board would have to act first.
And there are risks if he tries to dislodge Brewer, an African American with a solid naval record.
“You’ll have people say because he’s African American and such a good choice, he should be given a chance,” said attorney David S. Cunningham III, who is black.
“As our numbers dwindle in the city of Los Angeles, any high-ranking individual is symbolic of our ability to accomplish a great deal and serves as an inspiration, and that’s important for children. Adm. Brewer can become a symbol overnight.
“If he’s a good choice, it doesn’t matter who appointed him,” he said after attending the news conference.
Not everybody was won over.
“I am wary of the guy because the board chose him,” said Larry Aubry, a member of the African American Collaborative. “I don’t have a lot of confidence in the board’s decision as it relates to children of color. I do not think this board is progressive. I think it is protecting what it has.”
Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) said Villaraigosa is too sincere about improving schools to prejudge Brewer, and also too smart a politician.
The top local teachers union official was in no mood to celebrate. “The idea that he has no grounding in K-12 is disturbing,” said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. “And the idea that UTLA and the broader community were not consulted. I don’t want to hear that his wife and family were teachers. That doesn’t do it.”
“A classroom is different from a battlefield,” he added. “The goals and objectives are completely different. And it’s disconcerting to a certain portion of teachers who are fighting against military recruitment on campus.”
Others took no issue with Brewer but faulted the process.
“What they did was just another mistake,” said Luis Sanchez, executive director of InnerCity Struggle. Board members said they don’t need legislation to collaborate, but “there’s no collaboration that happened here. They basically told the mayor you have to agree with who we choose.”
The Rev. Frederick O. Murph, an African American and a Villaraigosa ally, said that it was a “low blow” for the board to act while Villaraigosa was out of town. But he called Brewer “an excellent choice” and a man of integrity.
Such views also were echoed by members of the City Council and officials in other cities. Some praised Brewer; others reserved opinion or simply took issue with the board for acting on its own.
“By everything I can tell, it’s a great appointment,” said former Mayor Richard Riordan, a Villaraigosa ally. “Let’s give the superintendent a chance and everybody get behind him.”
Times staff writers Steve Hymon, Lisa Richardson and Joel Rubin contributed to this report.