Brewer has yet to put his imprint on L.A. Unified
Several months into his job as superintendent of the Los Angeles school system, David L. Brewer held court before students at Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks.
Barrel-chested and ramrod straight, he showered them with platitudes, perfectly at home as a schoolhouse version of a tent revival preacher.
“Repeat after me: If I read, I will succeed,” the call and response began.
Students reacted a little sluggishly but gamely.
“A goal is a dream plus a deadline,” Brewer continued. Students again repeated after him, a little louder.
“Mountain, mountain,” he concluded, “get out of my way, because I have mind power!”
It was a telling morning, one that captured Brewer’s style and enthusiasm, his comfort with students, his ease in the public eye. But, in the end, it was a one-off motivational talk that led to nothing in particular. And that, critics fear, all too well characterizes Brewer’s superintendency to date.
Self-assured and eloquent, Brewer, in his first 11 months, has made clear his unabashed belief in his own ability to bring fundamental progress, or “transformation,” as he puts it, to a deeply inefficient and bureaucratic Los Angeles Unified School District.
But critics and supporters alike worry that the 61-year-old retired Navy admiral, who has no experience in public education, has not yet altered much of anything. They fear he will -- or already has -- become a prisoner of politics and bureaucracy, rather than a liberator of ideas and a change agent.
“There are those who expected more from him by this point, and there are realists who know how hard it is getting anything done in this district,” said Ted Mitchell, an education advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who recently agreed to help Brewer as well. “Now is the time for Supt. Brewer to establish his leadership, articulate his vision and move the district forward. The next three or four months will be absolutely critical.”
Brewer has landed a few victories: helping to nail down a short-term teachers contract and getting a budget passed. He deftly sidestepped the long-running power struggle between the school board and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has pushed for more say over L.A. Unified. And last month, civic leaders praised him for cutting through bureaucratic lethargy holding up a long-planned pilot project at a group of downtown schools.
“Supt. Brewer is digging in as deeply as he can given the immensity of the task before him,” said state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), a member of the search committee that delivered Brewer. “The politics that have swirled around his superintendency since his arrival have been daunting, to put it mildly.”
Whatever the reason, Brewer has gotten off to an uneven start.
An “innovation division,” which aims to create and replicate effective reform, has been slow to get off the ground. Separately, Brewer is assembling a task force to address the district’s lowest-achieving schools.
Touted as an outsider who could tame the district bureaucracy, Brewer missed an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership abilities with his early handling of a poorly functioning new payroll system. To some, Brewer did not quickly grasp the scope of the problem, which has resulted in overpayment or underpayment to tens of thousands of teachers and other employees.
Now, months later, he remains mired in its fallout, trying to recoup $53 million in overpayments and dealing with combative union leaders. Staff and outside consultants, meanwhile, are scrambling to address the mangled paydays; Brewer warned last week that it could take months more to fix the system.
On some crucial issues, he has seemingly been unable to make sure that his view prevails. Last month, the school board debated whether to extend health benefits to part-time cafeteria workers, at an annual estimated cost of $35.5 million. Brewer had endorsed a staff analysis that opposed the blanket extension as too costly. But at an August meeting with the recently elected board majority that supported the idea, Brewer retreated into near silence. Board members had to draw him out, finally getting him to briefly reaffirm his stance. They approved the benefits anyway.
Was this a lack of leadership or simply a leader shrewd enough to pick his battles?
Another saga has been the battle to control Locke High School, one of the district’s poorest-performing. Brewer had offered early assurances to charter school operator Steve Barr that a deal was doable to allow his group to take over the campus. But Brewer backpedaled when leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union, rose in opposition.
The superintendent was left to insist that he wanted to work something out but that Barr and the union would not negotiate a compromise.
It was a far cry from the quick retort he’d made a few months before about what he’d do if the union opposed his reform efforts. “I’ll just go around them if they don’t want to work with me,” he said at the time. The Locke episode was an early lesson for Brewer that in L.A. Unified, rhetoric comes easily, but results do not.
An impatient Barr successfully pressed the new board majority to approve converting Locke into several small charter schools that he would oversee.
As much as anything else, Brewer’s inability to fill top-level posts -- and to create his own team -- has caused concern.
In June, he failed to persuade his choice for chief academic officer, Gregory E. Thornton, to take the job. Ostensibly, negotiations fell apart over salary, but by the time Thornton walked away, Brewer understood that his selection of Thornton, who like Brewer is black, troubled some board members.
In a heavily Latino district in which nearly 40% of its 708,000 students struggle to speak English, board President Monica Garcia questioned whether Thornton embodied the experience and skills to revamp instruction for these students. Aware of this criticism, Brewer has since promised to convene what he called a nationwide summit on helping English learners.
Brewer stumbled again when a background check on his choice for chief technology officer turned up a personal bankruptcy and alleged gambling debts. Moreover, the district’s top financial and communications posts, as well as the chief operating officer job, all are staffed with interim appointments.
“That is probably my biggest frustration, getting the team in place,” Brewer said. “I’ll be very frank with you. As we are going out nationwide looking for this talent to come in here, some people don’t want to come here because it costs too much.”
Brewer also has been ambivalent about the long-term senior staff he inherited from his predecessor, former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer. But Brewer recently tapped Ronni Ephraim, who headed elementary instruction, to fill a newly created top post, overseeing training for all district employees. The school board resisted, agreeing recently to only a one-year contract, a signal that the board doesn’t trust its schools chief or that ethnic politics is at play. (Ephraim is white.)
“Half the battle is believing he can get the job done, and he does,” said Arlene Ackerman, former superintendent of schools in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and now a Columbia University professor. Ackerman has been an informal advisor to Brewer along with Rudy Crew, superintendent of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. “I think if he can get a good team around him, he’ll be all right.”
Broadly speaking, Brewer frequently talks about improving how the mammoth district is managed. He draws often from his favorite management tomes, noting a need for every administrator to receive “executive leadership training” and to reshape the underlying culture.
“I am not this messianic leader coming over the hill that’s gonna save the . . . day,” Brewer said. “I’ve got to go out there and make sure that everyone understands that making music is not necessarily the opera. And the only way the opera is going to play is if the French horns, violins and all those people are in sync.”
He invoked this theme in an August address to administrators with the image of Jaime Escalante, the Garfield High School calculus teacher who left the district amid tension and jealousy after the film “Stand and Deliver” was made about his work.
“What’d we do to him?” Brewer asked the assembled administrators. “We moved him out.
“In this culture,” he added, “we kill our savants. We have to stop that. That is part of the cultural revolution that is going to happen under Dave Brewer.”
Brewer acknowledges, however, that it will take several years even for successful initiatives to demonstrate significant progress, a point that is almost universally accepted by veteran reformers, including the mayor’s top education advisor, Ramon C. Cortines. Still, with three years left on Brewer’s contract, pressure is mounting in a city that is short on patience.
No major local figures are willing to criticize the superintendent on the record, but skeptics abound.
“He said to all of us, ‘I’m going to put an A-team in, make things happen. Watch me.’ And he hasn’t put anybody on first base yet,” said one businessman, who declined to be named because, he said, “I want Adm. Brewer to succeed so much. The cost to the kids of turnover -- having to find someone else -- is really high.”
The superintendent is aware of the whispered doubts.
“I hear the voices. There is no question about that,” he said in a recent interview. “But I resist that because I know that if you’re going to make a long-term and sustainable change, you can’t go for the flavor of the month.
“I’ve got to convince the public and those voices: ‘Look, stick with me on this. In fact, partner with me on this, so you know what the vision is.’ ”
Brewer’s own hiring, amid the battle between Villaraigosa and the former school board, set the stage for a challenging first few months. The political bickering ended in July, when the new board majority, closely aligned with the mayor, took office.
The relative calm, observers say, gave Brewer a fresh opportunity. But it was the board that commandeered the agenda, forcing issues that could potentially conflict with Brewer’s efforts.
Garcia, the new board president, pushed through several unusually detailed directives -- on dropouts, English learners, staff training and more -- that require Brewer to meet numerous tight deadlines.
“My reaction was, initially, ‘What the hell is this all about?’ ” Brewer said. “And then when we got into them . . . [I] realized that many are in line with my vision and goals. So I wasn’t offended by them.”
There’s precedent, however, for Brewer to be concerned. The last time a “reform board” backed by an L.A. mayor took over was in 1999, during Richard Riordan’s tenure. It wasn’t long before Riordan’s majority removed incumbent Supt. Ruben Zacarias.
Brewer could well be wondering what the board majority will judge as success. Will it want independent, assertive leadership or fealty to the priorities and prerogatives of the mayor and his allied board?
Garcia’s praise of Brewer suggests some of both.
“He has brought energy around leadership, around accountability,” she said. “And he has brought community engagement we did not have.”
Looking forward, she added, the expectations will be demanding: “I definitely expect to see a year of action.”
Begin text of infobox
Supt. David L. Brewer
Age - 61
Hired - October 2006
Terms - Four-year contract; $300,000 a year
Background - Retired Navy admiral
Major initiatives - His “innovation division” to promote reform; targeting low-performing schools; and a program to be announced today to reduce dropouts
Status of initiatives - In the early stages or not yet begun
Politics - Dealing with a new school board majority backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa after being hired by a board that was at odds with the mayor
Sources: Times reporting, Los Angeles Unifed School District