Sources say school board is scheduled to discuss buying out contract of superintendent, who has handed over most authority to Ramon C. Cortines.
Rising test scores Supt. David L. Brewer
By Howard Blume and Jason Song | From the Los Angeles Times
December 2, 2008 - Key civic leaders have lost confidence in L.A. School Supt. David L. Brewer and are quietly pressing for him to leave his $300,000-a-year position as head of the nation's second-largest school system, The Times has learned.
The school board is expected to discuss buying out Brewer's contract in a private meeting today, according to sources close to the district who are not authorized to speak about closed sessions.
Months ago, Brewer handed over day-to-day operations of the district as well as long-term planning to a deputy, Ramon C. Cortines. Brewer has remained the public face of the district and acts as its most visible lobbyist.
Those who are said to favor Brewer's departure include Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad. Each declined to answer questions about Brewer's performance, but political allies confirmed their positions. Riordan and Broad are active and influential in local reform efforts, especially in promoting charters, public schools that are overseen but not controlled by L.A. Unified.
The seven members of the Board of Education, Brewer's bosses, have been divided over the superintendent's future, including one who has applauded the arrangement with Cortines and one who actively desires Brewer's departure.
Board President Monica Garcia, a Villaraigosa ally, was among those who had assertively urged Brewer to bring in Cortines, a former superintendent in New York City, San Francisco and, on an interim basis in 2000, in Los Angeles.
At public events, Garcia has effusively praised Brewer, but when asked recently to assess the retired admiral, she was noncommittal.
"I'm not satisfied with the rate of change," she said in advance of this week's scheduled meeting.
Others in the city's government and philanthropic circles say that the dual leadership team is effective. Supporters also characterize Brewer's Sacramento lobbying as a vital effort to confront a budget shortfall that could surpass $1 billion over the next two years.
Brewer declined to be interviewed for this article, but by some measures, he should be riding high. Two years into his tenure, test scores have bumped upward and just this month, voters resoundingly approved the largest-ever local school bond for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
But Brewer's critics have characterized him as nonessential to these accomplishments. They say his alleged lack of internal leadership has become an anchor slowing reforms in a school system in which most students never achieve academic proficiency and at least one-third fail to graduate on time. And his annual compensation package -- $381,000 including expenses and housing allowance -- leaves some district insiders objecting to the symbolism of Brewer, in an apparently secondary leadership role, pulling down the district's top salary amid a massive budget crisis.
Sources close to Villaraigosa suggest he wants to see a change and would support elevating Cortines, 76, who served previously more than a year and a half as his top education advisor.
Villaraigosa has not moved openly. When Brewer, an African American, was hired, analysts said Villaraigosa could face political risks if he pushed for Brewer's removal. The previous mayor, James K. Hahn, lost crucial black voter support to Villaraigosa after firing African American Police Chief Bernard C. Parks. But no well-funded challenger emerged to oppose Villaraigosa's own reelection bid this spring.
Brewer hasn't been inclined to walk away; he recently spurned efforts to find him another job as an exit strategy, insiders say.
Even Brewer's critics acknowledge that the retired 62-year-old Navy vice admiral strode into a political maelstrom in late 2006. The school board majority that hired him was battling Villaraigosa over district control. Brewer, with no direct experience in public education, had to manage shifting power centers involving the mayor and the later Villaraigosa-backed board majority. And factions also exist within the bureaucracy.
"In another context, Adm. Brewer is probably a very inspiring leader, but not here," said civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who heads the appointed outside committee that oversees school bond spending.
"Running L.A. Unified is harder than running the United States," Rice said. "And at this point, L.A. Unified can't afford anything but leadership that is completely fluent in why and how the district is dysfunctional."
As an example, Rice drew a contrast between Brewer and his predecessor, former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who established the nation's largest school construction program. To keep the $20.3-billion effort on track, Romer "would not permit micromanaging from under-informed board members" or other political interference. Under Brewer, she said, facilities administrators suddenly had to manage politics as well as bricks and mortar, even when Brewer assured them matters were under control.
Rice is hardly alone among civic leaders disenchanted with Brewer, but many refused to express these sentiments on the record because of ongoing dealings with Brewer and the school system.
Emblematic of some current and former staff members is Kathi Littmann, who said she is grateful that Brewer made her the head of his Innovation Division and then signaled its importance by making the division his signature reform. But when internal bureaucratic resistance emerged, Littmann said, she couldn't rely on Brewer.
"Brewer was faced with a group of local district superintendents who challenged him," Littmann said. "They just didn't want to do it."
Like Rice and others, Littmann said Brewer didn't know how to overcome resistance or chart a firm course between competing priorities or political pressures.
When Cortines joined the district in April, he slashed Littmann's budget and downgraded her division's prominence. Nonetheless, Littmann said, Cortines was very focused on what was needed to make the division work.
"David Brewer is a very intelligent, well-meaning man in the wrong job," said Littmann, who recently accepted a top job with the California Charter Schools Assn. But he has not figured out "what he should be doing. He never built the team around him to do the work. And he lost the confidence of the staff around him in his first 90 days and never got it back."
Brewer's defenders say the superintendent is being evaluated unfairly.
"I don't think Supt. Brewer is getting much credit for those things that are going right, and he is very much stuck with the blame for things that have been wrong with the district for a long, long time, things that aren't necessarily corrected overnight," said Blair Taylor, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Los Angeles Urban League.
Taylor noted that Brewer sanctioned a community effort, which includes the Urban League, to improve Crenshaw High School in South L.A. Taylor said the initiative has resulted in increased enrollment and improved teacher retention.
Taylor also said Brewer deserves credit for bringing in Cortines: "With Cortines, you've got a great operational guy, which is exactly what the superintendent needed. Could Ray do both of those jobs? Yes. But if Ray were in Supt. Brewer's role, you'd need somebody else to be Ray Cortines."
Especially in trying times, the turmoil of bringing in a new superintendent could make matters worse, said Gary Toebben, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. "I don't see that this arrangement leads to a lack of vision . . . as long as the two are completely in sync," Toebben said.
Cortines noted that he serves, without a contract, at Brewer's pleasure and that he keeps Brewer fully informed by, for example, sending him a copy of every e-mail.
Cortines works on the 11th floor of the Beaudry Avenue headquarters. Brewer's domain is the 24th floor, which is accessed by a separate bank of elevators. They are scheduled to meet Tuesdays between 7:30 and 8 a.m.
All instructional divisions report to Cortines, as does the chief operating officer. Brewer still oversees staff attorneys, school police, lobbying and public relations. The facilities division also reports to the superintendent because bond measures approved by voters require it. But Cortines has a hand in Brewer's areas as well, frequently meeting with administrators of those departments.
During a week when Brewer hosted a news conference to announce the district response to recent wildfires, Cortines worked to develop plans to slash the budget and reorganize the entire school system, which he began to outline broadly in public meetings with employees and parents.
Brewer's role in that effort was to seek meetings with legislators in Sacramento and rally other superintendents to join him in opposing reduced funding.
And when he returned to town, the public superintendent had a full calendar, including rushing to the Sports Arena, where police had taken evacuated students after a lockdown at a nearby school. Brewer stayed until the last student was picked up, about 8:15 p.m.