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Schools chief's job is in danger

Disenchanted L.A. leaders align against Supt. Brewer, who has given many workaday duties to a deputy.

December 02, 2008|Howard Blume and Jason Song | Blume and Song are Times staff writers.

Key civic leaders have lost confidence in L.A. School Supt. David L. Brewer and are quietly pressing for him to leave his $300,000-a-year position as head of the nation's second-largest school system, The Times has learned.

The school board is expected to discuss buying out Brewer's contract in a private meeting today, according to sources close to the district who are not authorized to speak about closed sessions.

Months ago, Brewer handed over day-to-day operations of the district as well as long-term planning to a deputy, Ramon C. Cortines. Brewer has remained the public face of the district and acts as its most visible lobbyist.

Those who are said to favor Brewer's departure include Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad. Each declined to answer questions about Brewer's performance, but political allies confirmed their positions. Riordan and Broad are active and influential in local reform efforts, especially in promoting charters, public schools that are overseen but not controlled by L.A. Unified.

The seven members of the Board of Education, Brewer's bosses, have been divided over the superintendent's future, including one who has applauded the arrangement with Cortines and one who actively desires Brewer's departure.

Board President Monica Garcia, a Villaraigosa ally, was among those who had assertively urged Brewer to bring in Cortines, a former superintendent in New York City, San Francisco and, on an interim basis in 2000, in Los Angeles.

At public events, Garcia has effusively praised Brewer, but when asked recently to assess the retired admiral, she was noncommittal.

"I'm not satisfied with the rate of change," she said in advance of this week's scheduled meeting.

Others in the city's government and philanthropic circles say that the dual leadership team is effective. Supporters also characterize Brewer's Sacramento lobbying as a vital effort to confront a budget shortfall that could surpass $1 billion over the next two years.

Brewer declined to be interviewed for this article, but by some measures, he should be riding high. Two years into his tenure, test scores have bumped upward and just this month, voters resoundingly approved the largest-ever local school bond for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

But Brewer's critics have characterized him as nonessential to these accomplishments. They say his alleged lack of internal leadership has become an anchor slowing reforms in a school system in which most students never achieve academic proficiency and at least one-third fail to graduate on time. And his annual compensation package -- $381,000 including expenses and housing allowance -- leaves some district insiders objecting to the symbolism of Brewer, in an apparently secondary leadership role, pulling down the district's top salary amid a massive budget crisis.

Sources close to Villaraigosa suggest he wants to see a change and would support elevating Cortines, 76, who served previously more than a year and a half as his top education advisor.

Villaraigosa has not moved openly. When Brewer, an African American, was hired, analysts said Villaraigosa could face political risks if he pushed for Brewer's removal. The previous mayor, James K. Hahn, lost crucial black voter support to Villaraigosa after firing African American Police Chief Bernard C. Parks. But no well-funded challenger emerged to oppose Villaraigosa's own reelection bid this spring.

Brewer hasn't been inclined to walk away; he recently spurned efforts to find him another job as an exit strategy, insiders say.

Even Brewer's critics acknowledge that the retired 62-year-old Navy vice admiral strode into a political maelstrom in late 2006. The school board majority that hired him was battling Villaraigosa over district control. Brewer, with no direct experience in public education, had to manage shifting power centers involving the mayor and the later Villaraigosa-backed board majority. And factions also exist within the bureaucracy.

"In another context, Adm. Brewer is probably a very inspiring leader, but not here," said civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who heads the appointed outside committee that oversees school bond spending.

"Running L.A. Unified is harder than running the United States," Rice said. "And at this point, L.A. Unified can't afford anything but leadership that is completely fluent in why and how the district is dysfunctional."

As an example, Rice drew a contrast between Brewer and his predecessor, former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who established the nation's largest school construction program. To keep the $20.3-billion effort on track, Romer "would not permit micromanaging from under-informed board members" or other political interference. Under Brewer, she said, facilities administrators suddenly had to manage politics as well as bricks and mortar, even when Brewer assured them matters were under control.

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