Several months into his job as superintendent of the Los Angeles school system, David L. Brewer held court before students at Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks.
Barrel-chested and ramrod straight, he showered them with platitudes, perfectly at home as a schoolhouse version of a tent revival preacher.
"Repeat after me: If I read, I will succeed," the call and response began.
Students reacted a little sluggishly but gamely.
"A goal is a dream plus a deadline," Brewer continued. Students again repeated after him, a little louder.
"Mountain, mountain," he concluded, "get out of my way, because I have mind power!"
It was a telling morning, one that captured Brewer's style and enthusiasm, his comfort with students, his ease in the public eye. But, in the end, it was a one-off motivational talk that led to nothing in particular. And that, critics fear, all too well characterizes Brewer's superintendency to date.
Self-assured and eloquent, Brewer, in his first 11 months, has made clear his unabashed belief in his own ability to bring fundamental progress, or "transformation," as he puts it, to a deeply inefficient and bureaucratic Los Angeles Unified School District.
But critics and supporters alike worry that the 61-year-old retired Navy admiral, who has no experience in public education, has not yet altered much of anything. They fear he will -- or already has -- become a prisoner of politics and bureaucracy, rather than a liberator of ideas and a change agent.
"There are those who expected more from him by this point, and there are realists who know how hard it is getting anything done in this district," said Ted Mitchell, an education advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who recently agreed to help Brewer as well. "Now is the time for Supt. Brewer to establish his leadership, articulate his vision and move the district forward. The next three or four months will be absolutely critical."
Brewer has landed a few victories: helping to nail down a short-term teachers contract and getting a budget passed. He deftly sidestepped the long-running power struggle between the school board and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has pushed for more say over L.A. Unified. And last month, civic leaders praised him for cutting through bureaucratic lethargy holding up a long-planned pilot project at a group of downtown schools.
"Supt. Brewer is digging in as deeply as he can given the immensity of the task before him," said state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), a member of the search committee that delivered Brewer. "The politics that have swirled around his superintendency since his arrival have been daunting, to put it mildly."
Whatever the reason, Brewer has gotten off to an uneven start.
An "innovation division," which aims to create and replicate effective reform, has been slow to get off the ground. Separately, Brewer is assembling a task force to address the district's lowest-achieving schools.
Touted as an outsider who could tame the district bureaucracy, Brewer missed an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership abilities with his early handling of a poorly functioning new payroll system. To some, Brewer did not quickly grasp the scope of the problem, which has resulted in overpayment or underpayment to tens of thousands of teachers and other employees.
Now, months later, he remains mired in its fallout, trying to recoup $53 million in overpayments and dealing with combative union leaders. Staff and outside consultants, meanwhile, are scrambling to address the mangled paydays; Brewer warned last week that it could take months more to fix the system.
On some crucial issues, he has seemingly been unable to make sure that his view prevails. Last month, the school board debated whether to extend health benefits to part-time cafeteria workers, at an annual estimated cost of $35.5 million. Brewer had endorsed a staff analysis that opposed the blanket extension as too costly. But at an August meeting with the recently elected board majority that supported the idea, Brewer retreated into near silence. Board members had to draw him out, finally getting him to briefly reaffirm his stance. They approved the benefits anyway.
Was this a lack of leadership or simply a leader shrewd enough to pick his battles?
Another saga has been the battle to control Locke High School, one of the district's poorest-performing. Brewer had offered early assurances to charter school operator Steve Barr that a deal was doable to allow his group to take over the campus. But Brewer backpedaled when leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union, rose in opposition.
The superintendent was left to insist that he wanted to work something out but that Barr and the union would not negotiate a compromise.