By JENNIFER RADCLIFFE | HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Annie Wells Los Angeles Times - Children lead the Pledge of Allegiance at a Los Angeles Board of Education meeting in July 2007 attended by now former L.A. schools Superintendent David Brewer, center.
June 7, 2009 — LOS ANGELES — When former three-term Colorado Gov. Roy Romer announced his retirement in 2006 as superintendent of the Los Angeles school district, board members were quick to seek out another nontraditional candidate to lead the nation’s second largest school system.
The lure — the same one some Houston ISD trustees are feeling now — was that an outsider could more easily challenge the school district’s mammoth bureaucracy. Candidates who are not from the education world, after all, aren’t wedded to the system and are more likely to make bold, unorthodox reforms, they reasoned.
But their choice, a retired Navy admiral named David Brewer, failed to successfully transition from operating in the military’s top-down style to managing a 700,000-student bureaucracy heavily influenced by politics and competing special interest groups. Halfway into his four-year contract, Brewer was shown the door with a nice severance check, placing the school district back in the hands of a career educator.
“He almost completely lacked that kind of specific knowledge about how non-military school systems work, and that was a huge handicap for him,” said David Menefee-Libey, a professor of politics at Pomona College near Los Angeles. “Los Angeles Unified School District, like any large school district, has a lot of moving parts and a lot of conflict, and it would be hard for any newcomer to know where to start in learning about it.”
If those now charged with finding Houston’s next schools leader are to learn anything from Los Angeles’ experience with nontraditional leaders, their colleagues in L.A. say, it is that the candidate must have a résumé that includes proven political prowess.
Even for Romer, an urban school system proved a worthy opponent. The former Democratic National Committee chairman admits that the job took all of his political muscle.
“That was probably the toughest political assignment I ever had,” Romer said. “I never knew whether I had four votes out of seven on that board. It was always touch and go. It’s kind of like running a football team when you’re constantly calling audibles at the line.”
During his six-year tenure, Romer raised test scores and secured nearly $20 billion in construction funds, the largest school building program in U.S. history.
City Hall’s influence
After such success, Los Angeles school board members jumped at the chance to hire Brewer.
Like Romer, Brewer had some experience with schools. He helped run the education and training program in the Navy, where he spent 35 years.
Still, Los Angeles politics — including union pressures and the mayor’s push to gain control of the school system — proved too much.
“We thought that hiring an admiral who follows orders would have meant that he would have followed Romer’s trajectory, but the reality was City Hall was starting to dictate again,” said David Tokofsky, a former board member.
Brewer said he never imagined the political pressure he would face when he agreed to take the helm of L.A.’s schools. Among the challenges: An election that handed three of seven board seats to candidates backed by the new mayor.
“It’s the politics that’s killing public education. It’s not the quality of leaders,” said Brewer, who is now running his family’s education foundation in northern Virginia.
During his time in L.A., Brewer created a summer reading program, added prestigious International Baccalaureate programs at nine campuses, formed LAUSD’s first debate clubs and passed a $7 billion school construction bond. Test scores also increased.
“I was putting the pieces together to transform the district, but the politics of who was in control and all this other madness got in the way,” Brewer said. “It was disheartening. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was that bad.”
It didn’t take long for Brewer to draw criticism for being slow and ineffective. Early into his second year, some politicians and community members were disillusioned with the nontraditional leader concept.
They brought in career educator Ramon Cortines to handle day-to-day operations.
Two years after hiring him, the school board voted to buy out Brewer’s contract. Cortines, an experienced superintendent, was handed the top job, ending, for the time being at least, Los Angeles’ experiment with outside-the-box school leadership.
End of an experiment
The short tenure of superintendents at urban districts — less than three years on average — indicates that school boards across the nation are struggling to hire leaders, regardless of their backgrounds, said Priscilla Wohlstetter, director of the University of Southern California’s Center on Educational Governance.
“There’s a lack of training and knowledge on the part of board members,” she said.
Cortines worked his way up from being a teacher, just like Houston’s last two leaders: Abelardo Saavedra and Kaye Stripling.
Observers say that Cortines is as politically savvy as Romer, but also carries support from the mayor and from the board. His education background also gives him credibility with teachers.
firstname.lastname@example.org was the education beat writer for the LA Daily News in another life. And 4LAKids will argue with ‘observers’ and Jennifer all day long …I’ve never met anyone as politically savvy as Roy Romer! - smf