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An admirable pick?

October 16, 2006

IN THE CONTINUING CONTEST between Los Angeles' school board and its mayor over which can better exploit the calendar and the law to frustrate the other, score one for the school board. We just hope that while board members were hastily choosing a superintendent, they picked the right guy.

By all accounts, retired Navy Vice Adm. David L. Brewer III is intelligent, committed and a leader by example -- all desirable qualities in a potential superintendent. Beyond that, it's difficult for anyone, even Brewer, to know how a career Navy man with no real educational or political chops will handle what might be the toughest education job in the country. Like Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and pretty much everyone else in town, we're anxious to get to know him and his qualifications better.

There is no getting around, though, the board's childish behavior in timing its announcement for when Villaraigosa was in Asia. It comes just a week after its refusal to give the mayor any meaningful role in helping to choose the schools chief. Given the new superintendent's lack of relevant experience, and the lackluster pool of finalists from which he was drawn, it would have been better to have found a way for the public to gain confidence in Brewer before he was hired, rather than to hope things work out.

Politically, his lack of a record in education may even have been a plus in the board's eyes. No one, including the mayor, could attack him for having tolerated a high dropout rate or presided over a rigid, top-down school administration.

Despite the comments by Brewer and board President Marlene Canter that he has "education in his DNA," with both parents as teachers, that alone doesn't make for an educator -- especially given the extraordinary complexities of the L.A. schools. Still, we needn't be reminded of what we said six years ago, when we wailed about the rash hiring of another leader with little education experience. Since then, watching Supt. Roy Romer charge forward with reform, we've learned a lesson or two ourselves.

While legislators were slinging angry attacks at the school board, the mayor sounded just the right note in his response: hopeful about Brewer and eager to meet him, disappointed with the board over how the selection was made. It was a sensible reaction not only because Villaraigosa will have to work with Brewer but because, politically, it was the only course of action open to him. Hostility toward an African American appointee would risk alienating the black community, which has long felt badly served by the schools.

Villaraigosa gracefully let the district take this round and, with his measured reaction, set the right tone for moving forward. Too bad the school board appears less willing to change its act.

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