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Brewer pledges swift action after harsh report on LAUSD

Times Staff Writers

In the wake of a top-to-bottom review that harshly portrays the Los Angeles school system as inefficient and ineffective, Supt. David L. Brewer on Friday promised to quickly bring in outside experts, hire a chief academic officer and elevate almost all schools to academic success by 2013.

Using unsparing language, the sweeping analysis of the Los Angeles Unified School District by a consulting firm highlights serious shortcomings in instruction and fiscal management in the nation’s second-largest district.

After becoming schools chief in November, retired Navy vice admiral Brewer called for the report to learn what was working and what wasn’t, and to create a road map toward reforming the mammoth district with its roughly 78,000 employees, 700,000 students and $11-billion total annual budget.

The 115-page report -- based on previously conducted audits and analyses as well as interviews with more than 100 district employees -- describes an operation beset by an almost complete lack of accountability or consequences for poor performance, running from the most senior staff to school principals. Job descriptions are often unclear and evaluations rarely pegged to improved district performance, while communication among various corners of the organization is muddled or nonexistent, the report found.

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“The most apparent and inhibiting deficit standing in the way of instructional coherence in LAUSD today is a lack of accountability,” said the report by Florida-based Evergreen Solutions. “Currently, directives are given but few, if any, consequences are enforced for noncompliance.”

Perhaps the overriding message in the report is that past recommendations, made in one study after another, have rarely moved from paper to reality. In an interview, Brewer promised that things would be different this time.

“We’re going to set up a 21st century organization that is execution-oriented,” he said. “The culture is going to change.”

The first step, he said, is bringing in a temporary “transformation team” composed of outside experts who will be on the job by mid-May. Brewer said he will present his own 5-year strategic plan by June 30.

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Brewer said he would initially focus on instruction “because that’s our core mission. And the next thing is ... the budget. We have to make sure we get our finances and instruction properly aligned.”

Permanent hires will include a chief instructional officer -- tacit acknowledgment that Brewer is not a career educator.

The school system has two top administrators for instruction, one for elementary schools and one for secondary schools. A key finding of the audit is that there is no effective alignment between the two divisions.

In one example, the report noted students’ high failure rate in algebra and criticized officials for not better preparing students in math when they are younger.

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The report further questioned why the department in charge of elementary students who speak limited English is separate from the one that handles older students: “The use of multiple, often duplicative, and sometimes conflicting programs, such as those for students who are not fluent in English, fragments instruction and confuses students.”

The school district also has failed to replicate programs that are successful. In one example, “principals of schools that had made exceptional progress in raising student achievement reported to the board and identified five strategies they believed had contributed to their success. When asked what had been done in the district as a result of that report, the answer was ‘nothing.’ ”

Brewer also promised another new senior-level hire who will oversee ongoing training for teachers, administrators and other staff. The study criticized the district in this area.

The idea of a senior training official “sounds smart,” said Ronni Ephraim, chief instructional officer of the elementary division. “The district spends a lot of money on professional development, and some of that has paid great dividends.” But this training is managed by administrators in different departments who don’t coordinate with each other: “An office like this can help us.”

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She added that the audit’s criticisms didn’t offend her: “I don’t think Evergreen was tasked with looking at all the good things that we’ve done since 1999. This is a plan for how we move forward.”

Brewer volunteered specific, ambitious academic benchmarks. He said that by 2013, he intended to have more than 90% of schools surpass a score of 800 on the state’s Academic Performance Index. The index grades schools on a scale from 200 to 1,000 based on student test scores in math, English and other subjects; the state’s goal for every school is 800. Only five of L.A. Unified’s five dozen comprehensive high schools surpassed 800 in 2006.

“It will take time to do this, but we are going to get started right now,” Brewer said.

Brewer replaced former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer who, in his six-year tenure, concentrated mainly on new school construction and improving reading and math in the elementary grades through a uniform curriculum. The Evergreen report recommended further expansion of that approach to upper grades.

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The consultants, paid $350,000 so far for their work, found that the district had made somewhat better progress on its business side, citing the rollout of a $95-million computer system that, despite continuing widespread problems with payroll, is expected to streamline purchasing, budgets and other tasks.

A teachers union official had some reservations about the proposed transformation team.

“We would have concerns about bringing in outside consultants who probably charge a lot of money,” said Joshua Pechthalt, a vice president of United Teachers Los Angeles. “There are 100,000 district employees. Tapping into that body of knowledge may be a better way to go. Supt. Brewer did indicate he wanted us to look at this report and give him feedback on it. I take him at his word.”

Some facets of Brewer’s reform plan may require negotiating with employee unions. All of its major provisions would need school board approval.

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The report comes as district senior staff braces for an expected shake-up by Brewer in coming months and elected school board members recover from a protracted battle with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has campaigned aggressively for substantial influence over the district.

Indeed, some of the report’s most scathing conclusions echo criticisms by the mayor over the last year. “The current culture in LAUSD is one typified by not responding to priorities and deadlines, and there is no sense of urgency among managers,” the consultants wrote.

Board President Marlene Canter chafed at such words, saying, “I don’t think it’s necessary. When we’re asking for a tool we can utilize to help us improve, you don’t need to use that type of language.”

Canter nonetheless said she hoped the report would help Brewer.

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Board member David Tokofsky agreed: “It’s recycled material, but it’s a one-spot look for the superintendent to see some of what’s come before him and what’s in front of him."As for the school board itself, Brewer elaborated on the consultants’ analysis. The board, he said, needs to focus more on policymaking and less on trying to run the school district. Its bureaucracy, Brewer added, was largely to blame for such micromanaging, saying staff members have made the board “work too hard to get information.”

The superintendent added that Villaraigosa could play a vital role, but stopped well short of offering the sweeping involvement sought by the mayor. The courts have thrown out as unconstitutional a law that would have given Villaraigosa control over three high schools and the elementary and middle schools that feed into them.

Janelle Erickson, an aide to the mayor, said Villaraigosa had been briefed on the report. It “makes clear what teachers and parents have been telling us for years: that the massive central bureaucracy is

The mayor, Brewer said, is “welcome to make an offer” of how he’d like to be involved. Rather than running a group of schools, “I would like to see the mayor help me out with the entire district.”

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

howard.blume@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

EXCERPTS / ‘There is no sense of urgency’

A new report that combines previously conducted audits with new analysis found massive structural problems in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Here are excerpts from the report by consulting firm Evergreen Solutions:

“Local district superintendents have not been given the authority, responsibility or human/fiscal resources to accomplish their mission.”

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School-board “adopted policies either do not exist, are outdated, or, in many cases, administrators are not aware of the adoption of a board policy; the board’s policy manual has not been updated in decades.”

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“There is no linkage between planning and budgeting. Consequently, there is little evidence that fiscal resources are being directed to support district goals.”

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“The lack of accountability is pervasive throughout the organization at all levels. The current culture in LAUSD is one typified by not responding to priorities and deadlines, and there is no sense of urgency among managers.”

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“The Information Technology Department (ITD) is too isolated from its clientele. Furthermore, LAUSD lacks an accountability program for information technology. ITD has never prepared a long-range strategic plan for information technology.”

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“Currently, directives are given but few, if any, consequences are enforced for noncompliance.”

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“Interviewees expressed a concern regarding the achievement levels of LAUSD students on Algebra I. However, the elementary and secondary departments have not yet developed a cohesive approach ... that will create a sound foundation for student success.”

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“The use of multiple, often duplicative, and sometimes conflicting programs, such as those for students who are not fluent in English, fragments instruction and confuses students who are not conversant in English in the first place, by teaching them skills in different ways with different programs.”

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“By its own calculations, LAUSD estimates the cost of deferred maintenance to be over $6 billion. This huge burden has resulted in a nearly total emphasis on a daily response by maintenance to emergency calls.”

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“The current average of the bus fleet is 19 years ....The Evergreen Team has never seen 19 years as the average age.”

-- Compiled by Howard Blume and Joel Rubin

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Back story

Schools Supt. David L. Brewer took over in November, promising to “transform” the Los Angeles Unified School District. But first, he said, an independent audit was necessary to focus his efforts.

The first major report, by Florida-based consulting firm Evergreen Solutions, was released Friday. Though acknowledging some district progress, it found serious problems in all major district operations.

Source: Los Angeles Times

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