November 20, 2006
Dear David Brewer:
Even before you officially became Los Angeles Unified School District's superintendent last week, you'd been pep-talking anyone who'd listen, and in discussing your hopes for the district, you've been touting Jim Collins' bestselling management tome "Good to Great."
If you really think you're starting with a district that's "good," you've been massively suckered by those school board members who've been showing you off like a circus bear they won in an all-night poker game.
"Dreadful to So-So" would be a more realistic trajectory. A tequila-soused optimist wouldn't go further than "Mediocre to Semi-Great."
Still, I'm confident that I speak for most students, teachers, parents and citizens concerned about the region's future when I say we'll do whatever we can to help you build on the impressive progress made by departed Supt. Roy Romer.
With that in mind, here are three interrelated suggestions, pieced together from thousands of conversations I've had in my many years as a district parent and several months as an education columnist.
1. Fire people. Fast.
This sounds harsh, but nothing will do more to boost morale than your getting rid of the bad teachers, principals and high-ranking careerists who make everyone else's job harder and the district look bad.
When we rode together to an event at the Santee Education Complex a couple of weeks back, you said you planned to hire an outside firm to do an independent performance review. Cool.
But you also said you probably wouldn't be able to "kick anyone out per se." Uncool!
You've been publicly waffling on your early pledge to get rid of bad teachers. Why?
One middle school principal told me, with a chilling shrug, that he is lucky to have only four teachers whom he'd characterize as utterly incompetent. Do the math. Together they may be rotting 600 or more student brains a day.
Your constituents are driven to blithering rage by the "Dance of the Lemons" that shuffles loser principals, teachers and muck-a-mucks from job to job.
End this injustice and you may just end the fear of retaliation that leaves parents, teachers and principals unwilling to discuss problems — a climate of cowardice that cripples your schools.
2. Supt. Brewer, tear down those walls!
Driven by paranoia and a misguided urge to coddle, the board selected you in secret.
I'd assumed that must have seemed silly to a Navy guy like you, but my colleagues Howard Blume and Joel Rubin report that your new cronies recently banned reporters from a fundraiser where, from what I hear, some folks paid $10,000 each for face time with you and other insiders.
I suggest you trust the people who pay your salary and those of us in the fourth estate whose job it is to keep an eye on public institutions for the people who don't have the money to attend pricey private fundraisers.
The district's $7.5-billion budget and $19.3 billion in building money tempts many. Corruption stalks every dollar. Keep things wide open and the public and press will help you hold this city's cunning predators at bay. Pull down the shades and you instantly endanger the spotless reputation you've spent your lifetime building.
3. Set clear goals promptly but be open to anything.
You and your wife must have exchanged high fives when the school board, like infatuated teens, made the astonishingly foolish decision to give a pedagogic neophyte a $300,000-per-year contract plus big perks for the maximum four years allowed by law.
Now you're probably noticing entrenched "educrats" trying to make themselves seem indispensable to the new guy who doesn't have a clue. Don't fall for it.
Your greatest assets are that you're a proven leader but not a district insider with a lifetime of old boy connections eager to cash in chips; that you haven't been addled by endless colloquiums into believing that education is an arcane realm whose problems are incomprehensible to all but a pedagogic elite.
You've said your plan is to assess and evaluate the situation and only then to act.
Fair enough. But, just between us, Southern Californians' patience is not as boundless as the generous school board and comfortable Beaudry Street bureaucrats might lead you to believe.
So why not knock off a couple of common sense reforms right away: For example, — how about making the whole thing easier on parents by starting school at 8 instead of 7:56? How about making sure every kid has a seat?
Just don't get mired in such micromanagement.
Southern California kids need big changes, and you're the bold leader to make them. We hope.
If the courts let Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa go ahead and grab a measure of control of the schools, will you pitch in wholeheartedly to help him, even if board members and bureaucrats would prefer to obstruct?
If, after a few months or years, you decide that the sprawling district isn't manageable, will you push to dismantle it?
Most of us in Los Angeles are willing to do whatever it takes to guarantee our children a good education. If you have that same simple goal, plenty of people will knock themselves out to make sure you succeed.
To discuss this column or offer your own suggestions to the new superintendent, go to latimes.com/schoolme. Bob Sipchen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Connect the Dots / Great Minds Think Alike: Compare Sipchen's Fire People. Fast. with Mayor Riordan's advice, reported in the Nov 19 4LAKids:
4LAKids: "I was speaking to Mayor Riordan at the summit and he posited that it might not be necessary to eliminate ALL the LAUSD bureaucrats at to shake things up. Just get rid of one of 'em – fire the worst of the worst rather publicly - and the rest may fall unto line! (Riordan tends to have ideas punctuated with exclamation points – it makes him dangerous but I like that about him!) This solution – right out of Gilbert & Sullivan's "Mikado" ("They'll none of 'em be missed…") has a certain resonance. I have candidates of my own …but I'm open to further suggestions!" -smf