Advice for the board of L.A.'s school district.
Editorial From the Los Angeles Times
January 1, 2009 -- One of the first signs that David L. Brewer was in over his head as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District came in the summer of 2007, during a disagreement over hours for cafeteria workers.
A majority of the school board wanted to lengthen the employees' shifts so that they could qualify for full health coverage. But the district didn't have the $35 million this would cost each year, Brewer told the board. The majority ignored him, instead extolling the virtues of their unaffordable, if well-intentioned, decision.
Brewer was right, but he possessed neither the political skill to dissuade the board nor the moxie to hold his ground, a pattern that would continue until he was removed last month. The meeting also was a classic example of the dysfunction that continues to plague the board: a greater regard for politics (in this case, union pacification) than for the needs of children; a habit of making long speeches instead of getting work done; a tendency to micromanage rather than to set policy and allow the superintendent to implement it.
In newly appointed Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, L.A. Unified has a more decisive and, we expect, more effective leader. Now it's up to the board to accept responsibility for its own failures. In that vein, we offer the following advice:
- Pretend the TV cameras aren't there. School board meetings drag on unnecessarily. The board should save long-winded speeches for town hall meetings and come prepared for businesslike debate and thoughtful decision-making.
- Trust your managers. Stop interfering in the details; instead, set broad policy while trusting Cortines to carry it out. Hold him liable for the results, but don't hold his hand while he's trying to get work done.
- Do it for students. Before voting, ask yourself, "In what way is this better for students?" -- not for your image or political supporters. If you can't answer that question honestly, chances are it's a bad policy.
- No cliques. Once the board majority backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took its seats, there was a clear "in" group and "out" group, with the latter kept ill-informed on key issues (such as the move to buy out Brewer's contract). Bad communication and political infighting make for bad decision-making.
- Don't cling to pet projects. Whether it's dual-language immersion, small schools or more charters, most board members have their own visions of how to improve schools. Some are highly expensive, and some sound good in theory but are difficult to pull off on a large scale. Put workable ideas ahead of ego; drop or modify projects the district can't afford, or implement them on a small scale first. Ask for proof of results and get rid of what doesn't work, even if you loved the idea.