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Wanted: Schools Chief With Zero Experience

L.A. is one of many large urban districts that have turned to non-educators for a fresh perspective.

October 15, 2006|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Fryer uses an earthy metaphor to explain why the Los Angeles Unified School District hired a military man as its next superintendent: Walk around in a cow pasture long enough, he says, and you lose the ability to smell it.

Translation: Career educators can become oblivious to the flaws in their schools.

That thinking animated the decision last week to hire retired Navy Vice Adm. David L. Brewer III as head of the nation's second-largest school system. Brewer's assets include leadership ability, charisma and a resume that is spotlessly clean of any experience running a school district, or even working for one.

School trustees picked Brewer over four other candidates, all of whom had spent at least parts of their careers in the education establishment. He will succeed Supt. Roy Romer, himself an education outsider who came to the job after three terms as governor of Colorado.

Such choices, while unusual in other fields, are growing common in education, at least in large urban school districts. If anything, it's becoming the exception in the largest cities to hire a career educator to head a school system.

Chicago, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, Seattle and Washington, D.C. -- all have turned to nontraditional choices in recent years.

Former U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin ran San Diego's schools from 1998 until 2005, when he became California's secretary of education. Harold Levy was a Citibank executive before he became New York City's schools chancellor, a job now held by a former U.S. assistant attorney general, Joel Klein. Paul Vallas was Chicago's city budget director when he was tapped to become school superintendent there; he has since moved on to the School District of Philadelphia

And at least nine districts, most relatively small, have turned to career military officers, hoping that their lack of knowledge about education is offset by leadership, discipline and an ability to run a large bureaucracy.

In some cases, the results have been roughly analogous to what might happen if airlines hired pilots on the basis of their ability to perform heart surgery. Successors were left to sort through the wreckage.

But the same could be said of any number of traditional educators who rose to the top and crashed. And some of the nontraditional superintendents have won high praise.

"I think the track record's actually been pretty good," said Susan Fuhrman, president of Teachers College in New York. "I think an outside person can bring a fresh perspective and knowledge of running large organizations. You know, as long as they have good people around them who understand curriculum and instruction, they can do very well."

Still, Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University who specializes in governance issues, said the record of military officers as superintendents has been mixed. Some, he said, have been "overwhelmed by the change from the command-and-control structure."

Bonnie C. Fusarelli, an assistant professor of educational leadership at North Carolina State University who has written about military leaders becoming school superintendents, said problems arise when they impose a military command style on districts with a tradition of collaborative leadership.

One of the strengths that military leaders bring, she said, is that they are accustomed to using data, "so they can be very efficient at meeting the accountability standards."

Those who have made the transition say there is no reason to believe Brewer can't succeed. But they say he faces a steep learning curve -- especially when it comes to the most treacherous part of the job, local politics.

"Not that he hasn't seen politics -- he certainly has -- but local politics are nastier and much more intense than anything he's experienced at the national level," said Fryer, who won plaudits for his stewardship of the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla., from 1998 to 2005. He now runs the Washington-based National Institute for School Leadership, which trains principals.

Romer has said that, even as a former governor of Colorado and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he was unprepared for the politics in Los Angeles, with their cross-cutting ethnic currents and hidden shoals of personal rivalries. Brewer is stepping into an even more volatile situation, given the confrontation between the school board, which hired him, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is set to claim a share of the board's power.

Villaraigosa, currently in Asia, has said he is disappointed that he wasn't given a say in the hiring of the new superintendent.

Former Marine Col. Alphonse Davis, who had a short, stormy tenure as superintendent in New Orleans, said Brewer will have his hands full with "the rough and tumble, dealing with boards, people questioning your integrity and all the political hogwash that comes with that."

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