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Bob Sipchen | SCHOOL ME

For the sake of the kids, this pair must stay together

October 23, 2006|Bob Sipchen

Last week, the school board forced Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa into a shotgun marriage with a former vice admiral. The question now is, who'll wear the pants?

The mayor was traipsing about Asia gathering foreign affairs bona fides for his 2012 presidential bid, when, in a splendid flanking maneuver, Navy lifer David Brewer slipped into town, got himself appointed schools boss, and launched a photo-op counterattack so dazzling it looked suspiciously like the prelude to a 2009 mayoral candidacy.

The mayor lashed out. "I am deeply disappointed that the school board would move ahead with selecting a superintendent without the participation of the council of mayors, parents and the Los Angeles community," he said from China. Then, apparently recognizing that -- whoops! -- his ill-timed junket had left him helpless, he added that he looked forward to meeting Brewer and "working with him, parents and teachers to improve our schools."

Brewer initially portrayed himself as humble and eager to "partner" with Villaraigosa. As his PR-athon wore on, however, there were subtle signs that either:

1) Board President Marlene Canter's gutsy defiance of the mayor's pending power grab was rubbing off, or

2) The sizable ego-vacuum created by the mayor's absence was so tempting he figured he'd step right in.

Either way, by the time Brewer appeared on outgoing Supt. Roy Romer's vanity cable TV show Tuesday night, he was answering questions about such matters as raising additional dough for poor schools by casually tossing off ways that the mayor could "step up and help" him -- a nuance that will not be lost on anyone in City Hall.

Forgive the city folks if they're insecure. The district Brewer is poised to run had a $6.8-billion budget last year -- a few billion bucks more than the mayor had to spend -- and its $19.3-billion building plan makes the city's construction efforts look like so much pothole repair.

Another thing: On Tuesday, the board will probably be asked to ratify a four-year contract with the man it secretly selected, agreeing to pay him a salary just under an informally agreed upon ceiling of, from what I've heard, about $300,000 and perks.

The mayor makes a mere $193,908 a year.

Brewer has yet to grant me an audience. From what I've seen, though, he would appear to be a surprisingly strong choice for the often-weak board -- a tough, inspirational, Colin Powell-like leader who belies the board's notion that aspirants to this job are of an exceedingly delicate breed and must be shielded from the pain of public scrutiny.

That's important. This is a bellicose district, and Brewer's war college days may prove to be the most important schooling he got. As he and the mayor grapple for dominance, some old-school players will try to paint the tensions in stark black and brown.

Identity politics has had a nasty grip on this city for too long, though, and any leader's ability to save the schools depends on rising above the sort of adolescent Latino vs. African American mayhem currently plaguing many campuses. Brewer's time in the military -- one of the most ethnically diverse institutions we've got -- will help on that front. Even if his pep talks inspire racial harmony, though, it won't be the end of his woes. The moment his pledge to focus on disadvantaged kids and dropouts brings together blacks and browns, some white or Asian mom (or engineer dad who happens to be black) will blindside him with a complaint about a high-achieving school's lack of a robotics team.

L.A. Unified, after all, is anything but unified. It has some of the nation's best schools and some of its worst. And the district's rainbow-colored middle class represents not just the other side of the so-called achievement gap, but (remember Valley secession?) a genuine insurgent threat.

Outside one of the admiral's meet-and-greets, Franny Parrish, president of a Valley-area Parent Teacher Student Assn., offered a take on "inequality" that puts the issue of educational haves and have-nots in a different light. After awarding Brewer high marks as a motivator, she gave the district a tongue-lashing for shoveling Title I money into schools in poor neighborhoods while telling the high-achieving schools she represents to, say, fix their broken Xerox machines by holding bake sales.

No matter how much someone cares about "the children," he's not going to sacrifice his own child to the cause, and the men who would reform the schools need strategies for addressing that messy fact.

The mayor and the admiral are scheduled to meet for the first time Wednesday. Brewer talks about the tumultuous months leading up to his arrival as PB -- Pre-Brewer -- and almost seems to imagine that the mayor will notice the new kid's resolve and trot back to City Hall, never to utter the word "education" again.

Not likely. The mayor cares too much, has too much at stake.

There is, however, hope that the city can avoid several years of pointless squabbling.

Some observers, including attorney and veteran school-watcher Connie Rice, say that Villaraigosa's pragmatic ability to work with big-ego Police Chief Bill Bratton portends that he and Brewer, too, will eventually find marital equilibrium based on mutual respect.

Let's hope so. Divorce isn't an option. And the kids have suffered enough.

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