Treating schools like Navy fleet

The superintendent of Los Angeles Unified reads the paper. This much I know for sure.

"Steve, this is Adm. Aloof Brewer. Give me a call," he said in a message left on my answering machine last week. "I think we need to sit down and have a chat."

It sounded kind of ominous, but I agreed to meet retired Navy Vice Adm. David L. Brewer for lunch at the Pacific Dining Car. Was he going to dispute my description of him as the aloof, consultant-crazed chief of a flailing administration? Or try to defend his role in the employee payroll debacle and botched handling of an assistant principal accused of sex with girls?

To his credit, the admiral did not order me to give him 100 push-ups or anything like that. He's a big boy, he said, and he can take criticism. But he wanted me to get to know him and to hear about his approach to improving the school district.

The highlight of our 45-minute chat was Brewer's promise that in two to three weeks, 300 to 400 jobs at the Los Angeles Unified School District's headquarters will be eliminated as he decentralizes the district and transfers more responsibility to regional offices and schools. And that's just the beginning, he said. There will be more cuts soon.

But that was about it for specifics on how he was going to improve L.A. Unified. The man's smart, confident and earnest, but when he talks about management strategies and philosophies, you have to remind yourself he's talking about a school district. He might just as well be talking about restructuring IBM or the Pacific fleet.

He's just installed a CEO/COO management model. And he's building infrastructure in a matrix system and implementing vertical as well as horizontal articulation.

About 30 minutes into his spiel, I told him I had not yet heard him mention the 700,000 children he's responsible for. Brewer seemed surprised by the observation, if not a bit regretful.

"Everything I've talked about defers to kids," he said.

Does it?

I can understand why he'd feel more comfortable talking about management, since he doesn't bring any K-12 education experience to the post. Still, he's been in the job for more than a year. It's time to quit spouting how-to-be-a-leader claptrap from the management books he loves to quote, and start figuring out how to do a better job of educating kids.

And where's the passion? When Gov. Schwarzenegger proposed massive cuts in education funding, Brewer should have climbed up on the roof with a megaphone, swearing allegiance to students and screaming bloody murder at anyone trying to shortchange them.

You have to wonder whether the only thing that has kept Brewer on the job is the fact that school board members don't care to admit it was a mistake to hire him. Nor do they want the added humiliation of having to buy out his contract at the same moment they're hacking the budget and asking parents to write checks to keep their schools intact.

Speaking of the school board, Brewer listened quietly and politely as I laid out what two members had said to me about him recently -- though neither was willing to be quoted on the record.

One said that "there's still confidence he can do the job," despite the board's frustration over his lack of communication with district leaders and his overly methodical style. It took him more than a year to hire key members of his administration, and now it's time to produce results, the board member said, adding: "I'm going to hold him accountable."

The other board member graded Brewer much more harshly, saying he was "a big disappointment" and "the wrong guy for the job." Brewer is all rhetoric and no action, the board member said, and he lacks political savvy in a job that cries out for a skilled politician. "I am very, very close" to proposing that Brewer walk the plank, said the board member, who plans to wait a month and see if new Deputy Supt. Ray Cortines can help straighten things out.

None of this criticism seemed to faze Brewer, who said big structural changes were needed and results could not be delivered overnight. He said that under his CEO/COO model, Cortines would handle daily affairs and free the admiral to work on big-picture things like systems analysis, appointing a "blue-ribbon commission" to come up with revenue-generating ideas, and, of course, delivering horizontal as well as vertical articulation, whatever that means.

By chance, I got to see Cortines in action Tuesday afternoon when I sat through most of a Times editorial board meeting, and the difference was like night and day. Every goal he mentioned and every plan he advanced was about educating kids. And he spoke like a man who knows his stuff, which is no surprise, since Cortines has worked for decades as a teacher, principal and superintendent.

When he dropped in at Locke High recently, Cortines said, he saw some classrooms in which teachers were teaching and kids were learning. But he also saw too many rooms with televisions on or card games being played. On his watch, he said, that will not be tolerated.

He also said the district had to stop blaming its shortcomings on poverty and other challenges, get rid of superfluous consultants and stop "spinning" the public on its performance. And he plans to find out what makes successful programs work and then spread them throughout the district.

Asked if he believes, as Brewer does, that structural change is the priority, he said no. When I asked him to describe how he sees the division of duties between him and the superintendent, he said they didn't have all the answers yet, but that Brewer would continue to be the face and voice of the district.

When Brewer welcomed Cortines into his administration three weeks ago, some wondered if he did so under pressure from those who doubted his ability to lead the district on his own. It was only natural to wonder if getting Cortines in place was the first step in getting rid of Brewer.

On Tuesday, Cortines sidestepped the issue, saying he works for Brewer and serves only at his pleasure. But then he was asked if he would apply for the top job, should the position suddenly open up.

No, he said, then paused for several seconds. "I would expect to be appointed."

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steve.lopez@latimes.com

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