Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Steve Lopez



Steve Lopez: Points West | Los Angeles Times

December 10, 2008 -- Back when he was running for mayor of Los Angeles and calling education the No. 1 issue in the city, Antonio Villaraigosa's campaign put out a news release chiding his opponent for not being more involved with the schools.

The headline was:

"Jimmy Hahn, Please Report to the Principal's Office."

No one can dispute that Villaraigosa has been more involved in the schools, but somebody needs to call Tony V. into the principal's office too.

If I were to fill out Villaraigosa's report card on his role in education, I'm not sure whether I'd give him a C, a D-plus, or an Incomplete.

On the up side, the mayor had his fingerprints all over the ouster this week of slow-moving Supt. David L. Brewer, a retired Navy vice admiral, so we owe him a debt of gratitude. It seems a little sneaky that he left the dirty work to Monica Garcia, the school board president he helped get into office, but I guess you can understand why he didn't want to rile black voters who supported Brewer.

The bigger question, though, is this: How did we get stuck with Brewer in the first place, and end up giving him an early Christmas present -- a minimum $517,500 an buyout?

In part, because of Villaraigosa's clumsy politics.

Back in 2005 and 2006, Mr. Smooth got out a megaphone and screamed that L.A. Unified was failing miserably, despite improvements under then-Supt. Roy Romer. For the sake of the children, Villaraigosa blared, he had no choice but to take over the district. Not that he had any jurisdiction or experience, but that's a crumb of a concern for a man of Villaraigosa's appetites, especially with the usual heavyweight suspects -- Eli Broad and Dick Riordan -- cheering him on.

And so Tonio rammed a piece of sloppy legislation through Sacramento, giving him extraordinary new powers. A judge eventually tossed out the legislation. But the school board didn't wait for the ruling.

Racing to beat the mayor's possible takeover, the board quickly named a surprise-pick superintendent. In a neat trick, the announcement came just as Villaraigosa hit the ground in Asia on a trade mission.

Operating behind a news blackout over at the Beaudry Avenue Kremlin, our heroes had gone with a recommendation from former state senator and current county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, among others.

Welcome to Los Angeles, retired Vice Adm. Brewer.

No education experience?

No problem. Glad to have you aboard.

And now, two years later, Brewer walks the plank after barely getting the ship out of the docks.

Before I move on, though, let's look back on a great moment from the conspiracy to dump the vice admiral.

I'm talking about the day when Garcia, a Villaraigosa ally, was chasing fellow board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte to Union Station, where the latter was boarding a train for a meeting in San Diego.

Garcia had realized it might look bad to dump Brewer while LaMotte, the one black board member, was absent. So she sped over to the train station along with a trusty aide, hoping to stop LaMotte before the train whistle blew. The aide was apparently the quicker of the two, even in high heels. She valiantly gave chase but reached the platform just as the doors of the train were closing. I have only one complaint. At a time when everything's captured on video and ends up on YouTube, why not this? So here's where we stand:

Villaraigosa ally and capable Senior Deputy Supt. Ray Cortines appears ready to take the helm, at least on an interim basis. And for the time being, Villaraigosa still pulls strings on the board. (Although he appears to have lost one potential ally on Tuesday. In a perfectly bizarro twist, his presumed candidate for one open seat, the reform-minded Ben Austin, didn't qualify for the ballot because -- are you ready for this one? -- his signature-collection company gathered its John Hancocks in the wrong neighborhood.)

As I was saying before I rudely interrupted myself, now is the time for Villaraigosa to come out from behind the curtain and show us what he had in mind when he insisted three years ago that he could do a better job running the schools.

He doesn't have the direct control enjoyed by the mayors of New York and Chicago, but with Cortines in charge and the board on his side -- at least for now -- he's running out of people to blame for anything less than dramatic reforms and improvements.

So what should he do?

"The advantage the mayor has is a really good bully pulpit," said Charles Kerchner, who wrote a book called "Learning From L.A., Institutional Change in American Public Education."

Kerchner said the district needs to move toward a collection of mini-districts with many different teaching models available to parents and their children. His co-author, David J. Menefee-Libey, said funding shortages and Sacramento-based control of schools are daunting challenges, along with the vast number of poor and language-deficient L.A. students.

But if Villaraigosa has a strength, it's his ability to bring different parties to the problem-solving table, including legislators, parents, administrators, the teachers union and the business community.

"If anybody could pull a civic association together, he would be the guy to do it," Menefee-Libey said.

I stopped by Roosevelt High School on Tuesday morning to see how things were going on one of the 10 campuses Villaraigosa took control of earlier this year in a deal with the district. Too early to tell, I was told by the principal and teachers. But they also told me there's plenty of frustration, and some flagging faith, over the slow rate of change.

Slow change is unacceptable from a guy who talked such a big game.

Get moving, Tony V., or prepare to report to the principal's office.

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