Early Thursday morning, in a secret office building downtown, the seven members of the Los Angeles Board of Education called in David Brewer for his final interview.
It had been a long, improbable few months for Brewer. A relative unknown in national education circles and someone without any experience running an urban school system, the recently retired Navy vice admiral had emerged unexpectedly as a front-runner in the search for a new superintendent of city schools.
With questions lingering about whether his lack of experience would be his downfall, board members had decided to be tough on him. They peppered him with questions about major issues facing the school district: How do you plan to help students struggling with English? How will you stem the dropout rate? What about gang violence on campuses? How will you work with the teachers union? And what about the mayor?
As he had done at every other step along the way, Brewer impressed them.
“Almost everything we threw at him, it seemed, he was able to relate to some experience he had had,” said board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte. “He had a presence, a take-charge attitude.... He talked about potential solutions for many issues and was brutally honest about the few things he didn’t know.”
Hours later, a giddy board President Marlene Canter announced Brewer as the next superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District.
Brewer’s surprise selection culminated a seven-month search that saw scores of candidates -- many of them well-known educators considered at the outset to be likely choices -- fade, flop or withdraw. Although he was an ostensibly unlikely choice, several board members and others said that by the end, Brewer showed leadership skills, intelligence and a commanding, infectious personality that made him what they considered the obvious choice to lead the nation’s second-largest school district.
“He came out of the blue. He was not a traditional candidate,” board member Mike Lansing said. “I see that as a positive.... It was a really tough decision, but when it came to the bottom line -- the question of who was going to be able to succeed the most while living in this intense fishbowl -- he was the one.”
Los Angeles schools were nowhere on David Brewer’s mind when he got the first call in July.
He had left the Navy only a few months before and was settling into retired life. After more than three decades in the military, Brewer, 60, was eyeing the next 10 years as a chance to relax with his wife and raise funds for the foundation he had started for poor minority students.
The caller told Brewer that he had been nominated as a candidate in the search for a new superintendent.
Brewer took the next few weeks to mull it over.
“A good friend came up to me and said, ‘Dave, why wait? Why wait to help disadvantage children?’ ” Brewer recalled in an interview Thursday. “I looked at this job and I said, ‘Man, if you get this job, it is the ultimate stage for helping disadvantaged youth.’... I decided I would just put my hat in the ring and see what happens.”
After seeking nominations from about 6,000 power brokers, politicians, education experts and others around the country, the search firm managing the selection process, Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler, gave the names of about 140 candidates to a seven-member selection committee. After reviewing resumes and testimonials, the committee winnowed the group to 30.
After Brewer agreed to be considered, the head of the search firm, Ed Hamilton, flew to Virginia in August. They talked for a long time, Hamilton pushing Brewer to explain how he believed his skills as a Navy commander would translate.
Hamilton drew up detailed reports on Brewer and the other candidates. From them, the selection committee narrowed the group to about a dozen, who were brought to Los Angeles for another grilling.
As he later would with the school board, Brewer made a quick, strong impression on several members of the selection committee.
“He was phenomenal,” said state Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier), a member of the selection committee who ranked Brewer as one of her top candidates.
If there was a tipping point for Escutia, it was when Brewer talked about his weaknesses. “He identified himself as too forward at times, sometimes too zealous. He said, ‘I need to work on letting others step forward and take credit for our successes, but I’m going to step forward and take the blame when all hell breaks loose.’ I’m sorry, but that is a man who doesn’t have any problems with self-esteem,” she said.
From the dozen, the committee chose five very different finalists. Joining Brewer were Tom Vander Ark, executive director for education initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Carlos A. Garcia, a former head of the Clark County, Nev., school district; Ted Mitchell, a former Occidental College president who heads a nonprofit firm that funds charter schools; and Maria Ott, a former senior Los Angeles schools administrator who runs the Rowland Unified School District.
Early last week, the selection committee handed over its choices to the school board. Hamilton and several members of the committee reviewed each of the finalists for the board. It was clear to some board members that Brewer had made a strong impression.
Over the next few days, the board interviewed in private each finalist except Mitchell, who withdrew from consideration. By week’s end, Brewer was the favorite, scoring far and away the most points on the rating system the board used.
Ott, who faltered somewhat in her interview, according to several sources, withdrew her name. Faced with the three remaining choices, Lansing and other board members said they went into Thursday still undecided. Each man brought a very different skill set to the table: Garcia has experience running a large urban district and Vander Ark is a leading figure in public education reform with an understanding of pressing issues.
In the end, however, sources close to the board said Garcia could not escape questions about his record in Nevada. And Vander Ark turned the tables on the board, asking questions and laying out what one member called a “marriage proposal” that apparently left some questioning his desire for the job.
Much as they might have wished otherwise, board members were not working in a vacuum. A contentious debate swirled over what role, if any, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa should have in the selection.
Villaraigosa, who had won a power struggle with the board last month, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that will give the mayor of Los Angeles considerable authority over the district, had made clear that he expected to be involved. He called for the chance to conduct his own interviews, but no agreement could be reached.
Board members dismissed the notion that the fight with the mayor had weighed on them as they pondered their choices. But while watching Brewer at a boisterous news conference Friday in which the new leader had people shouting and clapping, Lansing said it dawned on him that they had found a man who could go “toe to toe” with the city’s charismatic mayor.
“He’s going to be a light that attracts as many moths,” he said.