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L.A. schools chief will leave job to head off fight

Blume, Song and Landsberg are Times staff writers.

Under pressure by civic leaders and members of his own school board, Los Angeles Schools Supt. David L. Brewer announced Monday that he would leave his post rather than drag the district through a racially divisive fight.

The Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education is expected to hash out the final details of an exit package today for Brewer, the retired Navy vice admiral who was supposed to bring military know-how and a deep passion for education to the job of running the nation’s second-largest school district.

“As an African American, I’ve experienced my share of discrimination,” he told reporters, school board members and district employees Monday. “I know what it looks like, smells like, and the consequences.”

“Although this debate is disconcerting and troubling, it must not become an ethnic issue. When adults fight, it can manifest itself in our children,” said Brewer, the district’s second African American superintendent. “This must not become an ethnic or racial battle that infests our schools, our campuses, our playgrounds. This is not about settling an old score; this must be about what is best for every LAUSD student.”

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Brewer, who is midway through his four-year contract, did not formally resign. He said he would ask the school board to honor the buyout provisions of his contract.

Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines is widely expected to take over as interim superintendent, a job he held in 2000. Just prior to returning to the district, Cortines served as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s top education advisor. The mayor and his school board allies have long been unhappy with Brewer’s performance.

Under the terms of Brewer’s contract, the 62-year-old superintendent would be entitled to 18 months’ severance, an amount estimated at $500,000. His compensation package includes a $300,000 salary, $45,000 a year for expenses and a $3,000 monthly housing allowance.

School board member Julie Korenstein criticized Brewer’s forced departure and buyout as ill-timed and ill-advised. With the district facing potential layoffs and massive budget cuts over the next two years, “you have to make every attempt to stabilize the district,” she said. “This does just the reverse.”

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And she characterized the anticipated buyout as a “dreadful misuse of public funds.”

School board president Monica Garcia, who led the effort to unseat Brewer, released a carefully worded statement Monday thanking Brewer “for two years of hard work and dedication.”

In an interview last month, Garcia said that district reforms were moving too slowly. Last week she alerted board members and civic leaders that she intended to discuss Brewer’s future in closed session.

But she quickly pulled back because of concerns about stoking racial tensions. Garcia’s office said she did not want to hold the meeting without Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, the board’s only African American member, who would not cut short a previously scheduled out-of-town trip.

Brewer said last week he didn’t understand the board’s unhappiness with his performance. He also defended his record, noting that test scores rose this year and that voters last month passed the district’s largest-ever school bond.

“I would take those two years and match them up against anyone else in the country,” he had said.

Over the last week, Brewer’s demeanor “changed from dumbfounded and dazed to moments of anger to moments of ‘I’m protected by my contract’ to moments of ‘What does this have to do with kids?’ ” said former board member David Tokofsky, who has been in contact with Brewer.

Sunday afternoon, Brewer met at the Westwood home of board member Marlene Canter with Cortines, LaMotte and a handful of trusted district staff members. The purpose of the meeting was to help Brewer take stock of his options and decide what to do, according to those present. Canter, the former school board president, was instrumental in hiring Brewer, but she, too, has at times been critical of his leadership.

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LaMotte never said that Brewer should necessarily be retained, but called it unfair to fire him without having established clear goals and giving him an opportunity to live up to them.

Korenstein and Canter echoed that sentiment Monday. Said Korenstein: “If the board majority doesn’t like what the superintendent is doing, then board members should direct the superintendent on exactly what they want him to do, which they’ve never done.”

Others said it was clear that Brewer was not living up to his promise.

A.J. Duffy, president of the powerful teachers’ union, said Brewer appeared overly focused on running the district by the dictums of “how-to” management bestsellers.

“You’re not going to improve student outcomes by quoting management books and extolling the virtues of systems analysis,” he said. “When you’re talking about student achievement, the human factor is the first factor and he never really got there.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Duffy said, “because he’s a well-meaning guy, probably with a lot to give. He was dropped into an untenable situation and unfortunately he didn’t create his own life raft by surrounding himself with a strong management team.”

In his statement, Brewer appeared to take aim at critics who said he lacked “the human factor.” He repeatedly invoked the needs of the city’s children, saying at one point: “My passion and commitment have not and will not diminish. I will not leave the children of Los Angeles.”

He seemed to allude to the school board majority’s agenda when he said: “What children need is not what adults want.”

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Brewer came to the job with little background in public education, but impressed the board as an inspiring leader with a “take-charge attitude.” Over time, he was criticized for moving too slowly to fill key positions and for failing to fully grasp the complexities of running a vast, politically charged organization that struggles to educate its 700,000 students, especially the many who are poor and not fluent in English.

Earlier this year, Brewer handed off day-to-day running of the district to Cortines, 76, who has headed school districts in New York and San Francisco. While Brewer considered the partnership to be a success, others questioned why the district should be, in effect, paying two superintendents.

Some are already pushing for Cortines to take over.

“Ray has started what we consider a very good process of bringing reform to the LAUSD. We believe that he is uniquely qualified to pick up the reins and run the district,” said Gary Toebben, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. “This would be a terrible time to have a leadership vacuum.”

Brewer took the job at a difficult time. He replaced former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who served six years as superintendent. Brewer, who arrived as Villaraigosa was pressing for control of the school system, didn’t know whether his ultimate boss would be the school board, which opposed the takeover, or the mayor. The board prevailed in court, and Brewer initially received high marks for cultivating good relations with both sides. Villaraigosa later helped elect a new board majority that was dissatisfied with Brewer virtually from the start.

He leaves in equally difficult times, as the district faces what could be its biggest budget shortfall ever. Although Los Angeles Unified is now flush with construction funds, from the passage of five bond measures over 11 years, it faces a $200 million to $400 million cut in its $8.6-billion operating budget this year, followed by another $400 million next year.

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howard.blume@latimes.com

mitchell.landsberg@ latimes.com

jason.song@latimes.com


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