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Q&A with Howard Blume: What’s next for LAUSD with Brewer gone?

by Julie G Fax

December 18, 2008 | 2:01 am

David L. Brewer III

David L. Brewer III

Last week the Los Angeles Unified School District board voted to spend more than $500,000 to buy out the two remaining years on the contract of Superintendent David L. Brewer III, a retired Navy vice admiral who took over the struggling district two years ago. Brewer's supporters point out that under his leadership, test scores have risen, more students have graduated, a malfunctioning payroll system was fixed and voters passed the largest-ever school bonds package.

Critics say Brewer's lack of experience in education made him an ineffective leader unable to push through the radical reforms needed to shore up a district with some of the nation's lowest retention rates, per-student spending and test scores. With midyear cuts necessary to close a budget deficit of up to $400 million this year and a deeper deficit projected for next year, critics said there was no time to waste in removing Brewer.

Ramon Cortines, a retired superintendent who stepped in to lead LAUSD in 2000 and who since April has been serving as Brewer's second in command running the district's day-to-day operations, is likely to take over as acting superintendent until a replacement is found.

Howard Blume, education writer for the Los Angeles Times, was a lead reporter on this story, and has been covering education in Los Angeles for 20 years, with a brief tenure as an editor at The Jewish Journal. He answered some questions about what Brewer's departure means for Los Angeles.


Jewish Journal: In the current economic climate, we've been hearing a lot about Jewish parents considering sending their kids to public school after having been at Jewish day schools or at independent schools. What do you think this whole mess means for parents who are taking a fresh look at public schools?

Howard Blume: It's hard to say. It does mean that forces that have been impatient with the pace of reform feel that they have won a victory, because they were never entirely sold on Superintendent Brewer, although he vigorously defends his record. Both inside and outside the school district there have been influential forces who feel that things have not been changing and improving fast enough, and most of those have applauded this move.

For parents contemplating L.A. Unified, there generally have been acceptable, high-quality programs for parents who are willing to make the effort to find them and go through the process necessary, which can be a bit of an ordeal. Those would be applying to magnet programs, investigating charter schools, or Schools for Advanced Studies, which is basically a renaming of what used to be called a gifted program.

In some ways, where the district has failed in the eyes of many is with families who feel they don't have a choice. In the poorer areas of Los Angeles, where families cannot afford private school, many of those schools would be absolutely unacceptable to middle-class families, and they're frankly unacceptable to many of the families that are in them, but they don't really have much choice.

JJ: It seems like part of what is going on is indicative of problems in the larger system -- the size of the school district, the huge bureaucracy, the politics. Do you think this will push forward some serious systemic changes?

HB: It could. Brewer believed systemic changes were necessary, and his critics felt that he wasn't always making the right decisions and he wasn't able to get the system to respond to his ideas, even when he was headed in the right direction, because in some cases there is a lot of resistance to change.

There is also a lot of disagreement over what the changes should be. When you have different forces having different beliefs in how to fix things, then it really does take a superintendent who knows what he wants to do and also has the moxie to pull it off.

JJ: It seems as if politics played a huge role in this -- racial and ethnic politics, mayoral politics, school board races -- and the students are the ones who got stuck in the middle of this mess.

HB: If you're Brewer, it's all about politics, because he knows he's trying hard and he thinks he's done a good job. If you're Brewer's critics, it's not about politics at all, it's about finding a way through the political process ultimately to remove the superintendent to find a more effective leader.

So how you interpret the politics of the situation and whether you interpret it positively or negatively depends on whether you think Brewer was effective.

What ultimately happened is the board exercised its right to buy out his contract, and they paid the price for it -- and that is not that unusual when you have a change in the board majority. Sometimes the superintendent simply loses favor, but other times what happens is that a different board majority will get elected and wants to choose their own person.

While it's not uncommon, it's not necessarily a good thing. One of the problems school districts have in this country is a lack of stable leadership.

JJ: Even if it's not uncommon, a $500,000 buyout seems extreme when you have this huge deficit looming over the district.

HB: They're looking at midyear cuts of $200 million to $400 million, which is an incredible task to do because you're halfway through the year.

You've already spent the money on half the program of the year, so it would double the impact of the cut. For example, if you cut one teacher at the beginning of the year, now you have to cut two teachers to make the equivalent impact. Next year you're looking at an additional $400 million deficit and another deficit of similar parameters the year after that, so they are in major budget-cutting mode.

JJ: I guess the feeling was that $500,000 spent on getting Brewer out right now was worth it.

HB: The feeling was not unanimous. Two board members voted against it. The vote was five to two. And some people believe that the job of superintendent is really too big for one person, and it actually made some sense to divide the job between Cortines and Brewer. They felt that things are actually going pretty well with the dual leadership arrangement. But that view did not prevail.

There has been some pressure externally and internally for a Latino superintendent, given that more than two thirds of the students are Latinos and many of those are limited English speakers, so it isn't as though that's entirely irrelevant. And it also must be said that advocates for black students feel that they've never really gotten the attention they deserved in the district and that their dropout rate and that their scores on standardized tests attest to the lack of focus on black students.

When Brewer was chosen, while I think the school board felt it was choosing the right person for the job at the right time, they also were aware that it could be politically tricky for Villaraigosa, as a Latino mayor, to engineer the ouster of an African American superintendent, especially before he had chance to prove himself. So while it may not have been the reason the prior board went with Brewer, they knew that by choosing Brewer they would hamstring Villaraigosa's influence in making a change, especially early on. Now, at the time they didn't know what was going to happen, because Villaraigosa at that point was trying to take over the school district or at least gain authority and it looked like he might succeed. It turned out he was unable to do that, and instead he elected a new board majority that was never won over by Brewer.

With Villaraigosa's own re-election looming, he did not want a repeat of what happened with Jim Hahn, when Jim Hahn lost support of many black voters because he failed to renew the contract of an African American police chief. The thinking now was that Villaraigosa has some political space to act because no well-funded challenger has emerged against Villaraigosa. I also heard that they wanted to act before the question of superintendency became an issue in the upcoming school board races, because that could repoliticize the issues all over again.

But now to the last part of the question -- was Brewer replaced because of racist tendencies, or would he turn this into ethnic issue? I think he in the end decided not to do that. If Brewer had been able to persuade the board that he was the right fit for the job, it would not have mattered to them in the end, even though there was some pressure to bring in a Latino. He could, for example, have done what he did, which was bring in a Latino educator to work under him. Had they been satisfied with Brewer, bringing in Cortines underneath him probably would have been enough.

JJ: This is a huge, problem-fraught district, and Brewer points to significant successes under his leadership. Do you think Brewer had enough time to prove himself? Do you think he got a fair chance?

HB: Superintendent Brewer correctly points out that test scores rose while he was here and the school district passed the largest school bond ever.

And he also points to other measures that he regards as positive. The problem is you're not going to a get a read on the success of his superintendency until far down the road, so the school board is in the difficult situation of having to make a judgment based on inconclusive evidence. And in fact the short-term evidence points arguably favorably toward Brewer, but they felt he wasn't the solution for the long haul and they weren't willing to wait to see that play out. If they're right about that, than that's the right decision, because you don't want the fate of children to be diminished because you're bending over backward to give top administrators a chance to prove themselves.

But if you're asking flat out, did he have enough time to settle the question irrefutably about whether he was an effective superintendent, probably not.

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